Jill Harden is an archaeologist with RSPB Scotland, and is back with this new blog on the fascinating historical features of Abernethy Forest.
Working and living in Abernethy forest
Opportunities to go out on reserves with colleagues are always time well spent, but visiting with someone from the Conservation Sciences team is of incredible value. Recently I’ve been walking along the tracks of Abernethy through the Scots Pine forest and out onto the heather moor with Ron Summers, Principal Conservation Scientist, much of whose research over the last 25 years time has been focussed there.
Understanding habitats, including how people have impacted on them in the past, is one of the threads of his research and we’ve been exchanging knowledge out in the field and discovering fresh elements in the complex jigsaw of time-depth.
Standing beside one of the 18th century man-made water channels beyond the southern edge of today’s forest – rank heather growth means that this 1.5m deep ‘leat’ is hard to see
While Ron’s research work focuses on bird life he has also been looking at land-use elements like the incredible amount of engineering works that went on in the area from the late 17th to 19th centuries to enable timber extraction. They are now regarded as industrial archaeology features of some significance because the water systems are so extensive. There are massive hand dug channels (known as leats) that took water into naturally defined areas that could be flooded behind artificial stone and earth dams.
Wooden sluices along the leats and at the dams controlled the passage of water, holding it in what would have looked like vast lochans until it was needed downstream to float timbers to the River Spey. Whether the labourers who constructed the system were recruited from tenant farmers’ families or brought in from other parts of the region needs further study. Today the holding ‘ponds’ are empty flat expanses of rank vegetation, but the dams betray the use that was made of what may have been good grazings before the 18th century.
The outlet through one of the dams; some of the sluice timbers survive in the water and when functioning all of the flat land behind it would have been flooded
My work has concentrated on the farms that were in Abernethy Forest during post-medieval and medieval times, and presumably before then too. Sleuich is one of these old places, now beyond the woodland towards Bynack.
Today the area is one of heather moorland and patches of rough grass, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. But this used to be the southernmost farm on the Nethy, abandoned in the late 1850s by the Fyfe family when they moved to another farm on the north side of the forest, close to Nethybridge.
The ruins at Sleuich: that on the left is a habitat for junipers – good to see out on the moor; the other ruin is on the grassy knoll at the right of the image
On a couple of low dry knolls, we noted the ruins of three rectangular stone buildings. One of them must have been the Fyfe family home – in 1841 it housed 5 children under 15 and their parents. The census states that there was a young shepherd helping on the farm then. If he wasn’t staying with them then perhaps he slept in part of the byre or barn, which is presumably what the other ruins were used for.
All of the buildings would have had walls of stone and turf and thatched roofs. Inside it would have been decidedly gloomy – there were probably only one or two very small windows letting light into the dwelling. Cooking was done over a peat fire in the middle of one of the rooms – there is no evidence for any fireplaces. It certainly wouldn’t have been very warm.
One of the buildings on the grassy knoll at Sleuich; set on a slight slope it may have been a byre
The farmstead overlooks one of the farm fields, its boundaries hidden in the encroaching vegetation. It’s hard to imagine this area of tussocky grass and heather as productive ground but it must have been so 150 years ago and more. The land was certainly improved for we discovered the ruins of a small lime-kiln in the vicinity.
It is likely that, as part of later-18th century agricultural improvements, the Grants of the Seafield Estate demanded that all farm tenants spread lime on their arable fields to improve productivity. Whether men travelled between farms to share their knowledge of how to build a kiln and produce lime from stone is not known – it’s another theme for further research. But we do know that most small farms in the area had their own lime-kiln and that limestone was brought in from near Tomintoul.
The ruins of the lime-kiln at Sleuich. Limestone was added from the top of the knoll into its central chamber. The front wall has collapsed around the draw hole through which the lime was extracted
However, the stone ruins that are visible today weren’t the first farm buildings here. There are a number of rectangular buildings that are far less obvious in the immediate vicinity. They must be 18th century in date, if not earlier. And there is also a group of smaller squarer buildings with much thicker walls partially set into the side of a nearby elongated knoll.
They are of a form reminiscent of a few recently recorded medieval farmsteads in the north and west Highlands. But there is an alternative interpretation – perhaps they are the remains of very old summer huts (shieling huts) used for shelter while tending cattle out on the hill, away from the home farm and its growing crops of oats or barley, grass and kale.
Hopefully further studies by the local community, volunteers and others will reveal more of the lifeways of the people of Sleuich. Their stories add considerably to our understanding of the development of the reserve. And this is only one of about 20 such farmsteads in the forest – all slightly different. There’s clearly a rich history in the Abernethy woods and on the hill ground beyond.
May is a great month to take up wildlife watching in Scotland. With summer migrants arriving from overseas and the days (that are supposed to be) heating up there is plenty to look out for along our coasts, in our woodlands, and even in our back gardens!
What to see in Scotland this month V
Peppered moth, Tom Marshall (rspb-images.com)
Be honest, how long did it take you to notice the moth in that photo? Peppered moths are masters of disguise, blending almost perfectly with the lichen upon which they land.
This camouflage helps them outwit predators by allowing them to stay hidden; but it hasn’t always been so straight forward. During the nineteenth century pollution killed off some of the lichens in the UK and soot deposits caused bark to appear darker. This spelled disaster for light coloured moths as they could no longer rely on their camouflage and were picked off and eaten by birds.
Darker moths however, were now at an advantage – they were better hidden so more likely to survive, have offspring, and pass on their genes. Dark coloured peppered moths became more dominant at this time, which shows well the phenomenon of ‘industrial melanism’.
Peppered moths can be seen throughout Scotland with their active flight period starting in May and lasting until August.
This stunning image of a dolphin was taken by Walter Innes at RSPB Scotland's Dolphinwatch in Aberdeen this year
This time of year also signals the start of RSPB Scotland’s Dolphinwatch project; an altogether different type of species to look out for. Perhaps surprisingly, Aberdeen is one of the best places in the whole of Europe for spotting dolphins – and you can see seals and otters along the coast too.
We have members of staff down at Torry Battery from 11am until 6pm Thursday to Sunday right through the summer if you want tips on dolphin watching or some information on these brilliant creatures!
Spotted flycatcher, Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
But perhaps one of the best wildlife events to look out for right now is the arrival of summer migrants. Bird species like spotted and pied flycatchers arrive in Scotland after making the hazardous trip from Africa. Both species will spend the summer here before leaving on their return flight come September.
Spotted flycatchers are one of the latest migrants to reach our shores because of their specialised diets. With their agile, twisting flight flycatchers are adept at catching larger species like moths and butterflies, as well as bees and wasps – they remove the stings of these insects by thrashing them against a perch. You’ll likely spot these birds in woodlands, gardens, parks, and church yards – basically anywhere with a good perch.
Pied flycatchers meanwhile, are shyer and will tend to stick to woodlands where there is thicker cover on offer. The male of this species has a quirky little habit of flicking up one or both of its wings vertically when they are alarmed.
Happy wildlife watching everyone – and we’ll be back with a new blog on what to see in Scotland next month!