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.
(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.
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.