The Lecht Mine

 

Lecht mine
The Lecht mine

Mining, whisky and religion

The Lecht is a steep road – this is, after all, one of Scotland’s main skiing areas.  The road seems to climb for ever to the summit, over 2,000 feet above sea level.  Imagine what it must have been like for the poor bull who helped drag the rollers for the Lecht Mine over it.

The Lecht mines

The mine was built in 1841 and closed just five years later – hopefully, the bull never knew that.  It separated manganese ore, used in the manufacture of household bleach, from the rock.  A slow process.  The rollers brought by the bull were operated by a water wheel.  They performed the first stage of extraction – crushing the rock – so they were heavy.

The workers barrowed the rock into the mine across a plank bridge high above the burn (stream) that fed the water wheel.  It must have been heavy work and, especially in rainy weather, slippery and dangerous.  Despite the risks, more than 60 people worked here at the height of production.  It will have been a big blow for the area when it closed.

There had been an iron-ore mine here in the 1730s, again for just five years. There was talk of opening the mine in the 1920s, again for iron, but it came to nothing.  It would only have been profitable if the iron could have been transported by rail from Tomintoul and nobody was investing the cash to build railways in the “hungry ’20s”.

So the empty shell of the restored Lecht mine building sits quietly at the head of its short glen, lonely and purposeless.

The Lecht Well

You reach the building from the Lecht Well car park, where I was lucky enough to see my first black grouse up close – well, fairly close, anyway.  We’d heard them calling as we walked and suddenly there he was, apparently unfazed by our proximity.

Black grouse at the Lecht
Black grouse at the Lecht

(I later saw two capercaillie and my travelling companion saw a red kite: a great day for us both!)

It’s roughly half a mile each way to the mine and back along a well-worn track, so it makes a good leg-stretcher on a long journey.  The route follows a burn so there’s plenty of water around if you’re travelling with a thirsty dog or puddle-splashing children.

Whisky smuggling

A sign half-way along the track points uphill to the left along an old whisky road.  Well, the sign calls it a road.  It’s hardly a path.  It doesn’t look as though even the sheep use it much nowadays; I certainly wouldn’t want to be carrying awkward contraband cargo along it.

It was quite busy once, though: this was one of the routes used by distillers of illicit whisky. The spirit was heavily taxed in the late 18th-early 19th centuries and local people brewed their own rather than pay the tax (they were made of sterner stuff than us).  These hills were sufficiently lonely and remote to avoid the eyes of the excise-men most of the time.

The whisky wasn’t just for home consumption – in fact some of today’s famous distilleries started illegally way back then – and the “whisky roads” were how it reached its market, smuggled through the heather at the dead of night.  Actually, night-time travel was probably mostly unnecessary: broad daylight would have been safe unless you were very unlucky.

… and religion

Also hiding in these hills was the Scalan Catholic seminary.  From 1717-1739, trainee priests of the then-illegal religion trained here to spread the word to their flock.  Large parts of the Highlands remained staunchly Catholic – some still are – and priests were needed.

But they could still, at that period, have been killed for their faith, so the seminary skulked in the hills, out of the eye of the Justices.  That’s not to say the Justices didn’t know about the seminary; there’s a good chance quite a few of them were themselves Catholics.  But the fact that it was hidden away allowed them to ignore its existence.

What with whisky smugglers and outlaw priests, these hills must have seen a lot of furtive movement.  The Lecht is not far from Culloden, and Jacobites escaping from the retribution after the battle probably “took to the heather” here too, as they did all over the remoter parts of Scotland.

It’s astonishing what you can find on a half-hour walk, even in what looks like the middle of nowhere.  There’s not a house to be seen, but people have worked here, legally and illegally, for centuries.  They still do, of course: employees at the ski resort, gamekeepers and hill farmers and, no doubt, many others.

The Lecht may look as though nothing ever happens there, but it’s just another case of appearances being deceptive.

Find out more:

The Lecht Well is on the A939, about halfway between Cock Bridge and Tomintoul, on the right and after the ski centre if you’re heading towards Tomintoul.  On the map we were using, the mine is marked as “Lecht Iron” – interesting, considering its history.

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5 Best-Kept Secrets of Angus

Glen Clova in Angus
Glen Clova in Angus

Angus: what most visitors miss

The county of Angus lies on Scotland’s east coast between Dundee and Aberdeen.  If people have heard of it, it’s usually because major golf tournaments are contested at Carnoustie, a links course of fearsome reputation.

But there’s so much more to Angus than golf.  It’s home to at least five “best-kept secrets”.

Lunan Bay

One of my favourite walking spots is Lunan Bay, two miles of sandy beach on a gentle curve backed by dunes.  The river Lunan runs into it near the southern end, its rushes hiding swan’s nests.  On the bank above sit the sandstone ruins of Red Castle, weathered over the centuries into fantastical shapes.

In a corner of the bay, the old fishing village of Eassie hugs the ledge of the cliff.  It’s now a gated community, a single-track road its only connection to the outside world.

The bay is one of the best places on the east coast of Scotland for surf and the sky is often colourful with the sails of kite-surfers.  Hundreds of gulls and shags nest on the cliffs, and the rocks are a larder of shellfish waiting to be harvested.

Best of all, even on a sunny weekend when the car park is full it’s big enough to feel as though you have the place to yourself.

Glamis Castle

Hidden away in woodland near Forfar lies Glamis.  The childhood home of the Queen Mum, it is apparently one of the most haunted castles in Scotland.  A confection of pink sandstone and turrets, it nestles low against a dramatic backdrop of high hills.

Now open to the public, Glamis is a magical place, full of history, atmosphere and quirky charm.  I’ve written a longer post on it.

The Angus Glens

… are five valleys running deep into the foothills of the Cairngorms.  According to local legend, the Glens are the imprint of God’s fingers when he finished creating the world.

They vary from gentle, river-created valleys like Glen Esk to the drama of Glen Clova, gouged from the hills by ice-age glaciers. Although popular with walkers, the glens are still quite empty of people, offering great opportunities for wildlife-spotting if you’re quiet enough.

Montrose Airfield

Montrose was the first full-time military airfield in Scotland, way back in 1913. Two hangars from that period are still in use, though not for their original purpose.

Although no planes fly from Montrose now you can still see the runways.  You can still use them too, as many cyclists, walkers and runners prove.  The old Station HQ is now a museum crammed with information, models – and ghosts.  During both World Wars the airfield was a training camp for pilots, many of whom are still “there”: both staff and visitors see and hear them .

You can read more about the airfield here.

Arbroath Abbey

The Abbey of Arbroath has a good claim to be the home of Scottish nationalism, because it was here, in 1320, that the Declaration of Arbroath was signed.

Officially this was a letter to the Pope claiming the right of Scotland as an independent country to take up arms in its own defence.  In fact it was aimed at the English King who wanted to annex Scotland, to warn him “hands off!”.  The Abbey is now a ruin, but the Declaration still has life in Scots’ hearts.

And there’s more…

Angus has plenty more to offer than these five best-kept secrets.  It often feels like the part of Scotland no-one visits.  People rush up the main road between Perth and Aberdeen, missing the real treat in the middle.

There’s farmland, forestry, mountain, ocean; breath-taking views, fine architecture, music, art; Arbroath smokies to eat and locally-produced beer, gin and vodka to drink.  The air is clean; it’s a peaceful county.

If you want something more energetic, Angus offers excellent horse- and mountain bike-riding, scuba diving, hill-walking, canoeing, and (of course) golf.

So next time you’re heading from Perth to Aberdeen, take some time out to explore Angus, Scotland’s hidden-in-plain-sight gem, and discover its secrets for yourself.

Find out more

https://www.visitangus.com/ has listings for things to do , places to go, accommodation and everything else you need for a first visit to the county.

For a list of recommended accommodation providers, see the DAVAA website.

 

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