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Strathdearn Community Website

 A little history of earlier times

Strathdearn is a river valley in the Highlands of Scotland extending about 22 miles long from Coignafearn to Moy, following the river Findhorn's meandering course through the parishes of Dalarossie, Tomatin and Moy.  The upper reaches of The Glen are narrower, then widen to almost 4 miles with the main centre of the community at Tomatin, meaning "Hill of the Juniper" in Gaelic.

The Strath was sculpted by a retreating glacier and is bounded by hills of the Monadhliath range, reaching heights of 3000ft nearer the headwaters of the river and gradually becoming less steep.  They are covered with heather and grass now but, in ancient times, were heavily wooded with birch, hazel and alder, but mostly pine.  Stumps and trunks of these veterans can be seen protruding from peat banks – what remains of the Caledonian Forest after slash and burn by early farmers and a changing climate.  Dried branches are full of resin and were used as firebrands for light and some heat.

The hills are home to the native red and roe deer, feral goats, foxes, wildcats and blue hares, as well as red grouse, ptarmigan and other upland birds such as golden eagles, buzzards, kestrels, harriers, ringed plover and redshank, also reintroduced red kites, and the summer visiting ospreys.

The fertile land along the river sides has been grazed and cultivated for thousands of years although the very first dwellers in the Strath, after the ice retreated about 6000 years ago, may have been MESOLITHIC hunter-gatherers who had no permanent abode, sheltered most likely by tents of animal hides over a framework of branches, easily moved from one site to another.  Their skilfully carved flint scrapers and arrowheads have been found, but the cold and peaty conditions favoured living nearer the coast rather than in the hills.

Later the NEOLITHIC settlers came, 4000 – 2500 BC and, as the climate was more temperate, they were able to till the land and became the earliest farmers, living at about the 1,200 contour, away from the swampy thickets by the river which harboured wild beasts, wolves and boar, bear and lynx.  The people could also see the approach of any strangers or just have the comfort of seeing firelight from other nearby settlements.  All that is left of their dwellings, "round houses" are circles of large stones which were the foundations for wattle and daub walls, and the holes for wooden posts which supported the heather or reed thatched conical roof, with a doorway facing south.  There would have been a central hearth from which the smoke found its way through the thatch – a custom still known even in the last century in more remote areas.  Some high status round houses are thought to have had an upper storey, judging by the extra postholes to support them, and some even had a front porch!  No round houses have yet been excavated in Strathdearn, although a score or more sites have been identified in small groups of 2 to 4, and all at the same latitude, mostly within sight of each other over several miles.

Graves are seldom found, unless during deep ploughing for forestry.  They are in the form of a cist, a rectangle of upright slabs with a capstone 'lid'.  The body lay in a crouched position but, in the acid peaty soil, nothing usually remains apart from a shadowy stain, sometimes with white pebbles or shells, or a pottery vessel that once held sustenance for the journey to the unknown.

The BEAKER people, named for their style of pottery, continued the settled farming way of life, domesticating animals such as sheep, goats, pigs, the small native cattle and hardy breed of ponies.  These all provided manure to improve the soil for crops of early grains for man and beast, which meant fodder so that some animals could survive the winter rather than be killed and the meat smoked or salted to preserve it for the growing population of people.  The diet was healthy with meat and fish, the latter either speared with a barbed flint blade attached to a lean pole, or trapped in withy baskets, cunningly angled.  Many medicinal herbs were recognised from what we think of as weeds. Wild grasses were improved to become spelt and emmer which provided metheglin, a primitive beer, or mead made when mixed with honey.  Happy feasting occasions!

There are no religious sites that we know of in Strathdearn, the people probably worshipped their pagan deities in sacred groves or springs, though the Neolithic age was known further south for its megalithic burials and large monuments.  The nearest important site is the one at Clava, near Inverness - three impressive cairns, two chambered with an entrance passageway, and one ring type, the whole surrounded by standing stones. There is also a modest ring cairn with a tall standing stone at its western end in Strathnairn, at Gask.  Maybe the local people made pilgrimage there from across the intervening hills to honour their ancestors?

The BRONZE AGE came into being 2500 – 700 BC and brought with it changes, a colder climate and peat build up.  Stone tools continued to be used, also arrowheads, now tanged as well as barbed instead of the original leaf shape, but the first metal objects were made of bronze, including plain or socketed axes, which made cutting down trees or thickets much easier and opened up further land for cultivation with primitive ploughs, also halberds and swords.  Personal adornment makes an appearance elsewhere, the power dressing of the age by the elite, gold ornaments, torcs, dress fasteners and brooches but this area seems to lack any such sophistication.

Round houses were the continued habitation but, once we have the chance to investigate them here, charcoal could be discovered, also cracked cooking stones and sherds of pottery or burnt mounds or even hack metal  (objects destroyed before burial).  A bone comb or a loom weight might be found in a woman's grave along with beads, and a man could have a knife.  Pottery beakers and food vessels now have decorative patterns incised around the outside, or pressed cord imprints.  No collared urns have been found for cremated remains as neither these, nor inhumation burials, have been unearthed in Strathdearn.

Early IRON AGE 700 BC – 1000 AD.  The greatest change came now, to our Celts, the earliest farmers in Strathdearn.  Iron meant strength and improvement in implements but, most of all, weapons, and skirmishes would have flared locally over theft of beasts or belongings up to wider conflict.  The loss of stock would have been serious, as they could have provided barter as a form of currency, a forerunner of the droving of beasts to Smithfield in London in 18th and 19th centuries.

The fear of attack meant that settlements were fortified, duns and brochs built, but none in Strathdearn.  There is a small crannog in Loch Moy, but nothing to match the vitrified fort of Craig Phadraig at Inverness, or Inverfarigaig near Foyers.  Elsewhere metalworking flourished; beautiful adornments as well as weapons, and trade overseas.  Chariots were used in battle but not in this area due to unsuitable terrain – warfare was probably more of the guerrilla type by men who knew their ground and now had more efficient weapons, swords, spears, halberds and arrowheads of iron.

The ROMANS coming in the early decades AD would have made little impact in the Strath, their galleys navigated around the Moray Coast, and further north, but they seem to have avoided coming inland, having a healthy respect for the fierce Caledonian tribesmen.  There would not have been much to be had in the way of rich plunder, possibly forays to secure slaves, or harvest and farm animals.  They did covet and barter for hunting dogs of the fleet footed deerhound type, and maybe for the beautiful native Celtic jewellery, some made at Culduthel, Inverness.

Once the Legions withdrew to the Antonine Wall, and ultimately abandoned Britain altogether in 5th century, the Picts, the Painted Ones, were then the indigenous people but they, in turn, were pushed east by the advancing Scots who came from the west coast, Dalriada, from Ireland.

The PICTS left a lasting legacy in their beautiful carvings on stone slabs - stylised animals, mythical beasts and enigmatic symbols which, even now, we cannot interpret.  Maybe they were tribal boundary markers, or a newsletter of the area for visiting chieftains!  Strathdearn is very fortunate to have one of these treasured items which was turned up by the plough at Invereen, near Moy, in 1932.  The original is at the Royal Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh but we have a fine life sized colour photograph of it in pride of place in the foyer of our Millennium village hall in Tomatin, a haunting echo of the Dark Age times we have so little revealed otherwise.

CHRISTIANITY came to Strathdearn in 7th or 8th century when St. Fergus, a follower of St. Columba, built his simple cell on a curve of the River Findhorn at Dalarossie, and converted the local people.  Up until then they had worshipped pagan deities, usually connected with a special spring or sacred woodland grove.  An ancient water-worn stone basin was found in the church glebe and is now set up on a local granite slab and used as a baptismal font at Dalarossie Church.  Another stone from earlier times was also found, rectangular in shape, with a hole in the upper part.  It is known as the Bargain Stone, when people clasped hands through the hole to seal a deal before the written word, or as a Betrothal Stone to promise faith between two young people at the time of marriage.

In earliest times the people probably lived in family groups, which grew as the land could support more mouths to feed.  There would have been  a tribal chief and elders, also shamans who ruled over the spiritual aspect of their lives, the best known being the Druids but nothing is certain about their involvement in Strathdearn, though one old map mistakenly refers to a large round house as a "Druid Circle", without standing stones.

The LATE IRON AGE (400 BC to 900 AD) was a complex time in Scottish history with various invaders disturbing what had been a relatively peaceful era.  Picts, Britons and Gaels all in turn warred with the indigenous native kingdoms, and hillforts and brochs were re-used.  The most feared enemy were the Vikings, seaborne warriors from Scandinavia, who attacked the defenceless monasteries for their rich pickings but even they eventually settled, mainly on the Northern Isles, and built a different style of dwelling – the long house and expressed themselves by Ogham Script and precious metal working.  They also left tall carved stones of beasts and interlace design, the later ones were known as cross slabs as they had a Christian symbol on one side and maybe a hunting scene with horsemen on the other. 

Amid all the upheavals over the early centuries, AD Christianity persevered and St Columba converted King Brude to the Faith at Craig Phadraig hill fort at Inverness – as well as telling the monster of Loch Ness not to trouble them as he and his monks journeyed by boat near its lair!  Beautifully illustrated manuscripts on vellum were painstakingly written by scribes, the Lindisfarne Gospels, Book of Durrow, and the Book of Kells, the latter two from Ireland, none locally.

The CLAN SYSTEM in Scotland gradually evolved into different Septs or branches, with ones in different areas, the most powerful being towards the North from 12th Century, with the Chieftain at the head of the clan – literally meaning 'family'.  His was a very powerful position, literally of life and death – "fosse et forca" over his followers and they owed their total allegiance and in many cases their land tenancy to him, and turned out to fight for his cause whenever called upon.  This summons was known as "the fiery cross", a brand carried throughout the Chieftain's territory, scorched at one end and bloodstained at the other to show that he meant business, to settle a score with a neighbouring clan or enemy.

The Mackintosh and Clan Chattan were the most important in Strathdearn and as far North as Petty, on the Moray Coast. In 14th Century the Chief built his castle on the island on Loch Moy and it was said to house 400 followers but, as times became more settled, he moved his family Seat to the shore of the loch.

The English King George was disturbed by the rising tide in favour of a Scottish Stuart pretender to the throne, which culminated in the Jacobite uprisings in 18th Century, and he decided to put a stop to the threat by Bonnie Prince Charlie.  The resulting battle at Culloden Moor in April 1746 was a disastrous defeat for the brave but disorganised Scottish clans, not just in numbers killed, hunted down or taken prisoner, but by the ferocious aftermath meted out by the Hanovarians to the survivors.  Their homes were burnt, crops destroyed, lands sequestered, even the wearing of the kilt, a source of honour to the Highlander, was forbidden.

CULLODEN is only about 12 miles north from Strathdearn but history is quiet about what must have caused great anxiety to many families whose menfolk had gone out to fight for the Mackintosh Clan.  Certainly there is a grave to two wounded who were put to the sword near Invereen and given Christian burial by those who found them.

Famine was a dread threat when crops failed due to poor weather.  Many died in 19th Century, "The Year of the White Peas", when food was sent from Holland to aid the survivors.

The mainly agricultural way of life probably continued according to the seasons but the greatest impact was the building of the new highway from Perth to Inverness by GENERAL WADE and the erection of the three arched stone bridge over the river Findhorn at Raigbeg by General Barrington in 1763.  This opened up a whole new way of life, only equalled by the coming of the railway in 1897.  Previously, local people crossed the river by wading or on stilts, a hazardous venture as spates were sudden and damaging, as was "the great flood" of 1829 which destroyed the stone bridge.  There were two "box bridges", known as pully-haulys, one below Lower Inverbrough and the other at The Streens, seating about 4 persons prepared to haul on the hawsers to reach the other side.  I expect their dogs preferred to swim!

The unimagined ease of transport by wheeled vehicles suddenly brought newcomers and new trade to the North in the 19th Century – travellers, goods and mail, also Kings Inns (rest houses) and changing posts for the horses which faced some awkward terrain.  There were steep inclines where passengers were obliged to alight on their journeys and even put a shoulder to the wheel, doubtless not enjoyed by those attired in the velvets and finery of the day!

The new ease of access to the Highlands brought a different style of newcomer to Strathdearn – the SPORTSMAN.  Following Queen Victoria's example at Balmoral, spacious lodges were built, with accommodation for the owners of the newly acquired estates and also their staff, both indoor and outdoor, the latter keepers, ghillies, stalkers and pony boys housed in nearby bothies or estate cottages.  Many of them were local employees with their knowledge of the game sought and the maintenance of the moorland.  This extra income was very welcome in an area where employment was limited.  In early days grouse shooting was by walking up, with setters or pointers to flush the game, but later came butts and driven grouse, needing beaters and, here again, local people gained as youngsters were employed for modest payment, and the womenfolk as indoor staff and laundry maids.

The RAILWAY was the next mode of transport to the Highlands and the Strathdearn link from Aviemore to Inverness was completed in 1896, with one very fine viaduct over the Findhorn and a shorter one over the road.  When the station was built the railway company needed a name for it so, the proprietor of the most disrupted estate was asked if it could be known as 'Tomatin', to which Mr MacBean readily agreed.  The name is really Tom Aiten, meaning 'hill of the juniper' in Gaelic.

A house was built for the station master, and cottages for the railway workers, so the community of Strathdearn gradually increased and more employment was available.  There was a primary school, a general store, post office and United Free corrugated iron church, more readily accessible than the old kirk at Moy or another 4 miles up the glen at Dalarossie, both with burial grounds.

There was also the Freeburn Hotel which had been a tryst in the days of the cattle drovers en route to Falkirk and Smithfield.  It had an inn, accommodation for sportspeople without their own lodge, kennels, and salmon and trout fishing nearby. 

Before the War I remember the excitement at Tomatin Station in August when the 'sleeper' train stopped, and passengers descended, guns and accoutrements, staff, then dogs from the guard's van, to be met by transport called 'shooting brakes' to convey their parties to the various lodges up the glen where all awaited their comfort, warmth and Highland hospitality.  Ponies, or garrons, were provided to transfer the less able to their allotted place for drives – so peaceful and more natural than the ATVs nowadays.  Again, deer carcasses are now brought off the hill by 4x4, no longer pony-power, and your stalker needed to be a mechanic as well as keen eyed and patient.

Industry came to Tomatin in 1897 with the building of the Distillery, a site chosen for the pure water and availability of peat (in earlier times it was burned to be used as part of the distilling process).  The railway was also a boon, with a short spur going from the station to the distillery.  Houses were built to accommodate employees, mostly local men and their families, which was a welcome opportunity for steady work, as sport was only seasonal.

Many decades earlier, farms were mainly at subsistence level, with crofts and sheilings, but larger families and better health meant extra pressure on the land available and gradually people moved down from the Glen to where there were better employment opportunities, and the old homesteads and their fields went back to nature.  Strathdearn was never blighted by the infamous Clearances, when families further North in the Highlands were driven out to make way for increased sheep farming.  Now there are just several larger farms, amalgamated to more profitable units, and cottages improved to make holiday homes in a very beautiful and peaceful area.

The previous pages give the gist of the evolvement of Strathdearn from our predecessors of prehistoric time shaping the countryside and moving forward through the ages, between calm and turmoil, just out of the way of invaders, but absorbing new ways of life and progress.  I will draw to a close now, before World War II, and hope that true antiquarians and historians will not find too many gaps or errors in dates in my "Little History of Earlier Times" in the Strath where I live.

Ann Glynne-Percy

October 2012


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