Spring In The Vale Of Atholl

From The Scots Magazine, 1 June 1899

“April brings the primrose sweet,
Scatters daisies our feet.” 

SO sings the poet, but in the Vale of Atholl winter still lingers, though the month of April is already a week old. The trees are stretching their gaunt, naked arms towards the clear, cold sky; the withered leaves cling to the oak and the beech, rustling with every passing breath, the heather and bracken still clothe the hillsides with a faded brown, instead of the tender green of spring-tide, while away in the distance, the the giant Bens, from summit to base, are wrapped in snowy garments. 

Pitlochry from the road to Moulin

But though winter still lingers, reluctant to depart, this lovely vale has, this sunny afternoon, a beauty all its own. How invigorating is the air blowing clear and keen from the snow-clad hills! How sweet is the scent of the pines, how fresh the aroma from the newly upturned earth! Already we, a weary city-bred trio, feel new life pulsing in every vein as we pass along the winding road. On our right, the Garry bounds joyously along — the green-brown slopes of Tulloch Hill rising proudly from the river’s edge; in the fields on the left, the ploughman whistles cheerily as he turns up the rich brown earth, while across the moss-grown dyke, sheep lazily nibble the fresh, green grass. At the tiny hamlet of Auldclune, crocuses — purple, white, and yellow, make gay the cottage gardens, while in many sheltered, sunny nook, daffodils golden in the sunshine. Urrard House looks down from its wooded heights upon the grassy plain where, more than two hundred years ago, the bloody conflict of Killieankie took place. Were the snow-clad hills, the rocky treeclad heights, and the brawling river given a voice, what thrilling tales they could tell! A war correspondent’s most exciting romances would seem tame beside those histories of bygone days and clans. The thrushes are singing gaily in the historic Pass; the dark swollen river frets and fumes among the giant boulders; here and there the sun’s warm rays are kissing the graceful birches and tasseled larches into life, and soon we feel all nature will rejoicing in the return of Spring. We gaze across the wooded strath towards the Giant’s beneath which the Falls of Tummel are ceaselessly: 

“Curling and whirling and purling and hurling,
And thumping and plumping and bumping and jumping,
And dashing and flashing and splashing and clashing,
And so never-ending, but always descending,
Sounds and motions for ever blending.” 

Catching a glimpse of Faskally House, we soon find ourselves entering Pitlochry, with its hotels and hydropathies, shops and villas, truly fashionable holiday resort. We only have time for a cup of afternoon tea in the Institute, before setting off on our return journey. The comfortable tea is deserted, save for stalwart young shepherd, who insists upon impressing everybody with the good qualities of his and wise-looking collie. They have evidently had long, hard day together, and we are pleased to hear him order, along with his own tea, a substantial meal ‘for the best dog in the place’. 

Our cosy sitting-room has been invaded in our absence, and we find two young men in possession. Are they Highlanders? Certainly, from their dress, but their southern tongue betrays them, and we learn, with amusement, that they donned the national garb and descended on foot from the wilds ‘just for a lark’. They valiantly propose to ascend the snow-clad Ben-y-Gloe in a similar dress next day, but when they appear at a late breakfast, they are still limping painfully, and the sight of time-tables and talk of Perth and Edinburgh prepare us for their somewhat speedy flight.

Sabbath morning dawns calm and bright. The hush of the day of rest lies upon the village as we take our way to the railway station. The platform is deserted, save for the solitary official who must be on duty. The mail train is short one, for no one travels for pleasure on the Sabbath day in the north countree. Only we town-bred folks, whose holiday is very brief, venture forth to worship God in a temple not made with hands. Ten minutes’ run, and we alight from the train at Struan Station, and turn our faces towards the east. 

The noisy Garry is crossed, the tiny village of Calvine left behind, and at the hamlet of Bruar we leave the main road and pass through a wicket gate, which leads towards the famous falls. Upwards we climb, winding in and out among shrubs which, a few weeks’ hence, will be ablaze with rhododendron blooms. Overhead and around us are fragrant pine trees, while at our feet the stream leaps joyfully downwards, here and there tumbling over some giant rock, a snowy, sparkling, living thing. Standing on the old grey bridge above the Upper Fall, we gaze in silent awe, and wonder on the beauteous scene, and in our hearts echo the words of our national poet in his description of Bruar Water — 

“Here, foaming down the shelvy rocks,  
In twisting strength I rin;
There high my boiling torrent smokes, 
Wild roaring o’er a linn;
Enjoying large each spring and well,
As nature gave them me,
I am, altho’ I say’t mysel’,
Worth gaun a mile to see !” 

Beneath us the flashing water is singing its never-ending song, the snowy spray gleaming in the sunlight as if gem-bespangled; on either side dark pines clothe the steep banks, the soft wind whispering among the branches; while far across the fertile green Yale of Atholl the snow-clad mountains cleave azure skies. Schiehallion, the rugged range of Farragon, giant Ben Lawers, Beinn-a-Chait, and the mighty Ben-y-Gloe clothed down to the feet in snowy garments, while Ben-y Vrachy is mottled white and brown, its dark sides showing through the snow, as befits its name of ‘speckled mountain’. 

The Sabbath day lengthens towards evening and we wend Way towards the Parish Church. The attendance is small, the minister is away from home, but the young licentiate who takes his place is eloquent and earnest, and we enjoy and feel the better of the short and simple service. 

All night long the rain pours down, and in the morning the mist still clothes the mountain tops; but by ten o’clock the sky cleared, and we are glad, for this day many thousands of toiling men and women will be leaving a great city to enjoy a brief holiday among the hills or by the sea-shore. 

We pass our time lazily beside the Tilt and Fender, and in the golden evening follow the windings of the Garry beneath the shadow of Hill, by lonely croft and comfortable farm, till Killiecrankie is reached; there crossing the river by the old grey bridge, we return by its northern bank to our most home-like hotel. 

Lo! on Tuesday morning the world is transformed, for not only have the mountains donned a thicker garment of snow; on the river bank, on the green beside the hotel, even on the Public road a spotless covering has fallen, and the keen north wind is whirling the powdery flakes hither and thither. 

“How cold it is ! How stormy !”
“Yes, let us be off for a ten miles’ tramp, and not sit lowering and shivering over the fire.” 
“Well, where shall we go ?” 

Glen Tilt is decided, and arrayed in caps and warmest jackets, gloves and capes, with staff in hand we set out briskly towards the dark, wild glen, which in a bygone September we had traversed. 

The picturesque Old Bridge of Tilt, Middle Bridge and Fender Bridge with its primitive post office, are passed, and we are soon on the public path to Braemar. To our left the dark river rushes among rugged rocks, sometimes forming snowy cascades or deep, black pools; on our right the hills slope upwards towards the sky-line, their green sides clothed, here and there, with sturdy oaks still bare and naked.

On these snow-clad slopes a flock of sheep are feeding, a rabbit dashes out from among the withered bracken a squirrel peeps at us from an overhanging pine, and standing out against the horizon a herd of deer gaze timidly downwards, and then scamper off across the snowy hills.

Suddenly the sun is darkened, the azure sky is blotted out, the wind begins to shriek and wail down the lonely glen, and we have only time to don our waterproof capes and turn our storm collars when a perfect blizzard bursts upon us. For a few minutes the snowstorm is perfectly bewildering, and the cry of some wild bird and the shrieking of the wind among the mountain clefts sounds almost eerie, but as quickly as it has come does the tempest spend itself, and the glad sunbeams stream forth once more. 

At Marble Lodge we halt for a breathing space before retracing our footsteps. How lovely is this picturesque white cottage standing solitary above the noisy stream, with snowclad hills behind it, and the precipitous steeps of Ben-y-Gloe near by.

How bright and merry is its young mistress, as she welcomes us into the old-fashioned kitchen, with its clay floor and wide-mouthed chimney, up which a great wood fire crackles gaily. The loneliness of the glen, the long, dark nights and short winter days have no terrors for her, for is not summer coming, when visitors are passing nearly every day, when glimpses of the outside world become frequent and familiar.

But our brief holiday is ended, and in the peaceful evening, when the setting sun is flooding the river and the strath with golden light, and tinging the snow-clad mountains as with living fire, we bid a reluctant farewell to this beauteous Vale of Atholl.


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