by Alistair Heather

Jake’s whit ye’d cry a hermit. Tae get tae his, I hud tae drive doon a snaw-coatit, pithailed dirt road that disnae ging onyplace. Minus fower it said on the car as I skitit an slithered ma wey doon a brae, rummelt across a shoogly brig owre a burn, then birlt the wheels on ice.

Jake stuid keekin doon the road at us, wi a lang coorse beard blawin aboot in the breeze, an a heid o unco grey hair fechtin oot fae aneath his bunnet. I wis there tae speir at Jake aboot the Cabrach, the contested hert o the North-East. Ma interviewee luiked absolute Baltic, up tae near the tap o his bits in pure white snaw.

“Hiya Jake,” says I, finally oot the car. “Should we get a blether in the hoose?” noddin the heid at the totty wee bothy ahint him.

“Och, no,” he says, gien his hauns a guid rub. “It’s owre cauld tae be inside the dey. Best stey oot.”

Puir auld Jake hadnae a heat in the hoose. It wis caulder in there nor oot here. We had the crack ootside thegither in the snaw o his gairden.

The Cabrach is a neuk o laun thirty mile sooth o Elgin an the same in fae Aiberdeen. In the auld deys ye’d hae illegal whisky makers, Jacobites, an Catholics hidin oot there, alangside a guid population o fairmers an tradesmen. Nooadays it’s maistly a sportin estate, wi the remnants o a community hingin on fir the grim deith. The Cabrach is maistly owned by ane o the richest cheils in England, a guid pal o the royals cried Christopher Moran. Moran bides doon in London in a mansion richt by the Thames. He used tae be a banker but got his jotters fir “discreditable conduct”. He’s noo intae property, which is ironic. Ironic as its it’s the lack o habitable places tae bide in the Cabrach that’s helpin tae kill the community aff.

READ MAIR: Unmasked: the landowner set to make millions from Moray wind farm

A few year syne the community scuil wis doon tae juist fower bairns on its roll. Moran hud thirty hooses sittin wioot occupants aroon the glen. The guid laird fun himself unner pressure tae let fowk flit intae thum, tae gie the community a boost. He wadnae budge. Then three o the best o the hooses were burnt doon mysteriously, meaning naebody could bide there.

Onythin that gets in the road o his sportin estate seems tae enn up the waur fir it. His warkers hae been convictit fir pittin poisoned baits aa aboot the glen tae kill aff protectit birds o prey. A cheil fae the RSPB, Keith Morton, wis quotit sayin the Cabrach estate "has the worst concentration of criminal activity ever discovered in Scotland."

Moran even refused permission tae the Cabrach kirk tae pit a few new lairs in their kirkyaird, when their current, centuries auld site wis stappit fu. The extended kirkyaird wad ruin the bonnie view fae his holiday hame in the glen, appairently. Let them pit their deid in some ither airt. A muckle wind fairm will suin be biggit on the hill abuin the Cabrach, an the spakes o the turbines will birl awa, makkin still mair siller fir them wha need it least, whilst ablow them a puir community sprauchles doonward in perpetual decline.

There’s a new hieland clearance in the Cabrach. It’s turned fowk like oor pal Jake intae hermits. Jake doesnae want tae be a hermit. He’s been made ane by the fact he hasnae ony neebors.

“There’s fowk that come tae that big hoose maist simmers” he says pyntin back owre the burn at a muckle Georgian pile that’s yaised fir holiday lets. Its three stories o grandeur sit a half-mile doon fae Jake’s ain cauld wee bothy, wi its reekless lum. “But they dinnae really want tae associate wi a scruff like masel.”

READ MAIR: Plans for a Cabrach whisky


Proposed Cabrach distillery

Jake wantit tae let us ken exactly whit sort o position the Cabrach wis in. Sae he took us doon the snaw-happit fairm road tae a clachan cried Aldivalloch. When Jake was a young laddie, there wad hae been aboot ten faimlies bidin here, in the puckle o wee fairmhooses gaithered thegither by the Aldivalloch burn. Noo there’s naebody. These braw stane biggins are abandoned, an will smool slaw back intae the earth, an be forgot. Poignantly, Jake brought his wee mandolin, an played a sang screivit in Aldivalloch, aboot a drama there. He wantit tae bring ane o the auld sangs back tae its hame. It wis a stark mindin that wi the fowk hae gaen a wheen sangs, tales, identities, wirds. Wi them has gaen ae mair fithaud o humanity in the hielands. Noo ony settlement here can ainly be a recolonization, insteid o a rejuvenation.

Aldivalloch is ae mair slockit licht in the aye growin derkness o the hielans. The truth o the situation fir the hail o the Cabrach is screivit on the crumblin waas at Aldivalloch: dae something different or dee.

But there’s hope. The Cabrach Heritage Trust has been pit thegither tae big up a new community visitor centre an distillery. Their ettle is tae big up a community resource that’ll mak a dozen jobs, an vitally bring in fowk fae ootwith the Cabrach as tourists an visitors tae learn mair aboot this aft-forgotten neuk. It’ll bring fowk in tae the Cabrach, an mibbie gie oor pal Jake a neebor or twa afore lang.

Tak tent o the Cabrach, fir its success or failure will echo far ootside its ain narra borders.


Alistair Heather