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Friday 20 September 2013

Floating Timber Down the Spey

Not all of Calum Maclean’s fieldwork recordings were restricted to Gaelic song or stories for here is an example of a bit of social history recollected by Joseph Lobban (b. c. 1877), aged 75, a retired carpenter, from Abernethy and then residing in Nethy Bridge, Strathspey. The following, recorded on the 25th of October 1952, gives a fascinating insight into the work undertaken by loggers, during the late nineteenth century, to float timber down the Spey:
Well, the floaters up till about the – a hundred years ago – the most of the wood was transported by water. There was no roads, no railways. All had to go by water. Well, in these times away up in the Caledonian forests of Abernethy there had been umpteen pit-saws erected and the farmers and crofters then were engaged in the winter months in dragging the trees to the pit-saws. And the sawyers would saw them up into railway sleepers. The railways in England was going on the, but there was no railways in Scotland. And they had to be transported from Garmouth. That was their nearest seaport. And they had to be floated down the Spey. And those floaters they had to be skilled men, because they built the sleepers on rafts and floated them down the Spey till Garmouth. That would be a distance of over forty miles. The number of sleepers on the raft depended on the size of the water. If the water was high the more sleepers they would take – anything – up to a hundred an’ fifty or two hundred sleepers on the one single raft, and one man to navigate it. The only instrument they had was what they called a floater's cleek. It was like a boat hook to steer the raft off the rocks. Well, I remember my own father telling me once – he was a skilled floater – going down with a raft, and he got stuck on the rocks at Carran. There were bad rocks on the River Spey at Carran. And he was detained about three hours there and before he got to Garmouth and got the raft off his hands and was paid for his raft, the coach that left Garmouth for Granton had gone, and he would get no more till next day. He left his cleek and put his address on it to be sent with the coach the next day and walked it, walked the forty miles. All that he carried was a small bag o’ meal, and he would get hot water at any house; and always made the bowl of brose and a smoke and walked the rest. He arrived home at Lower Dell up here next morning. He left Garmouth at eleven o’ clock. He arrived up at Dell next morning at six o’ clock, six in the morning – walked day and night. He got his breakfast. He went down to the River Spey – a distance of two and a half miles – and started buckling his next raft.
The floaters never had corns. You never heard of a floater troubled with corns. His feet were always wet and the corns didn’t thrive. You never heard of a floater having a cold. The reason o’ that I think was that those floaters had a man carrying a cask o' whisky and at every stage or every now and again they got their glass of whiskey and that seemed to do the needful. They had no waders, just ordinary woollen clothes and they would be up to the knees, up to the belly sometimes in the river. It made no difference. They were hardy. There were times when they called a jam. That was when the whole float sticks and they jam up in the water. The logs in front got stuck and that ones had to be relieved. It was a dangerous job, but I never heard of anyone being drowned. They could just jump along on the logs. They wore loggers’ boots wi’ nails in them. They got a grip on the log wi’ the floaters cleek balanced themselves.
I remember seeing a cleek. They were long – about twelve feet – handles in them of twelve feet – wooden handles with iron hooks. There was a point and a hook. It was something like the Lochaber axe.
About the timber in Glenmore there was one tree they had to leave. The wind blew it, and they had to send to England for a special saw to cut it up. It was six feet through – in diameter, and they gave one board of it to the Duke of Richmond, and it’s in a table in the hall of Gordon Castle to this day. It was a huge tree. I heard the old people talk about it. I heard of the stump of it. I know whereabouts it was, but I never found it. It was overgrown with juniper and heather.
The forests grew at one time over three thousand feet, and you’ll see the stumps of the old trees still up there. And at the present day once you go up the Windy Corner, there’s no trees at that height. There was a saying at one time that a squirrel could travel from Forres to the top of Cairngorm without touching the ground. There was so much forest. They cut a lot in those days when the Englishmen were there. They had been years there working.
At Kincardine they cut a lot of birch there into bobbins for thread-mills, but I suppose now they would get them from America. They used birch as fuel. Any time of the year you can burn birch – when the leaf is on even. And it burns better in frosty weather. It throws out a fine heat.
With new modes of transportation reaching the Highlands during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially through the expansion of railway networks and the building of roads and bridges, opened the area up for a more intensive period of industrialisation. The transportation of timber then became more reliant upon the railway and road networks than had previously been the case when rivers were (and still are in other parts of the world) the best way of carrying these loads to their various destinations.
Affleck Gray, Legends of the Cairngorms (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1987), pp. 253–65
SSS NB 22, pp. 1708–12
Loggers, River Druie, Strathspey, in the early 1900s

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