A toposcope marking three centuries of dwellings in a rural area of Moray once known for illegal whisky production has been unveiled.

The Cabrach has been described as one of the most important birthplaces of malt whisky, thanks to the illicit distilling and smuggling of Scotland's national drink during the 1700s and 1800s.

At the height of production around 100 pot stills are believed to have been in operation in the area, which at the time had around 1,000 residents.

Today there are fewer than 100 people living in The Cabrach, with industrialisation drawing people into cities, mechanisation of farm machinery making labourers redundant and the legalisation of whisky production seeing many skilled distillers moving to legal distilleries.

The Cabrach Trust was set up in 2011 in response to the need to preserve the cultural heritage of The Cabrach and safeguard its remote community.

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It aims to provide economic and social development opportunities for the Cabrach, creating jobs and attracting new visitors to the area to celebrate and protect the cultural heritage, beautiful landscape and history of the area.

In 2024 it will open a world-first social enterprise whisky distillery to underline the importance of the area to its production, showcasing the craft and alchemy of making Scotland’s national drink while telling the story of the historic region.

On Saturday the Trust unveiled the Cabrach toposcope, mapping 300 years of homes and families.

The Herald:

The graphic display, cast in bronze, sat atop a dry-stone plinth, and located on the public Discovery Trail at the Trust’s Inverharroch Farm base, was unveiled by creators Lynne Strachan and Mary Bourne, who completed a painstaking and wide-ranging research project throughout 2023 by studying old maps and documents, talking to local residents, and corresponding online with members of the global Cabrach diaspora.

Tracing the names and locations of historic dwellings in a place like The Cabrach is far from an exact science. Some names refer to areas as well as specific buildings, as at Crofthead and Bridgend. Many houses were called after their occupants; for example, Auld Bell’s, Bob’s House and Auld Davie Rattray’s, but these names might then change with the occupant. Some houses have been renamed – for example, Sunnybrae became Kildonan; some have been rebuilt in new locations – the old Craigluie up the hill has now been replaced by the new Craiglewie down by the road.

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Pronunciation and spelling often bear only fleeting resemblance – the farm called Gauch is spoken “Jach” and sometimes the official name of the house and its colloquial name are unrelated as at Badchear North, which was known as Shepherd’s Cottage.

Lynne Strachan said: “It is almost certain we will not have managed to catch every dwelling in The Cabrach, but hopefully we have managed to record the majority and we would like to extend our heartfelt thanks to all the people who have helped us with this task. We hope the map will help people to imagine a landscape where all these buildings were homes, lums reeking and lights shining softly at dusk.

“Learning the names of these houses, through talking to local residents, corresponding with members of the diaspora and combing through old maps and documents, has been an extraordinary experience.

The Herald:

"The histories of the families who have lived here, where they came from and where they ended up, show over and over again how one place connects to another.

"At the same time, the locations of their dwellings show how intimately understood the character of the landscape has always been, and how people have always located themselves in the best way to serve their needs.”

Sam Dowdall, Community and Development Manager at The Cabrach Trust, said: “This project is an exciting collaboration and further enhances The Cabrach Trust’s commitment to the regeneration of this special place. The concept was Mary and Lynne’s and delivered through Cabrach Reconnections, which is supported by the Trust and the Cabrach Community Association.

"Lynne and Mary have been working together as Cabrach Reconnections since 2021, researching and responding to this isolated upland area.  In The Cabrach, in common with many remote, rural Scottish communities, the pressures of depopulation and change are very acute.

"However, through all our activity at the Trust, and work with likeminded friends and partners, we aim to not only stem that tide of decline but regenerate this centuries old community.”