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Ferries and Fairy Hills

Updated: Aug 4, 2020

Today my wanders took me on my bike along the cycle path that leads from home , through Aviemore, across heather moors to another of the Speyside villages - Boat of Garten.

Signs welcome you to "The Osprey Village - a reference to the number of ospreys that have chosen to nest in the area since their successful reintroduction following a period of extinction across the UK. There's a popular RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) visitor centre at nearby Loch Garten where cameras keep a close watch on nesting pairs - for the entertainment of visitors but also to guard against egg thieves who, in spite of hefty fines and prison sentences, will still use climbing gear and camouflage clothes to steal the eggs of rare birds including the osprey and golden eagle. Unbelievable!

The mighty River Spey is the main artery of this region of Strathspey and Badenoch - Badenoch means drowned land hinting at the power of the river and its influence over the surrounding fertile plains. Records show that there's been a settlement here on the banks of the Spey since at least the 1300's, but until relatively recently the population was more widely dispersed across several small hamlets. Known as Gart or Garten the definitive origin of the name has become lost in the mists of time but the best guess seems to be that it comes from the Gaelic Ghartain, meaning cornfield.

By 1600 we know that there was a boat ferrying people (and livestock) across the river at this point - the ferryman's cottage stands as a reminder - and by 1880 a chain ferry was in operation. A large flat-bottomed wooden boat that not only carried people but also vehicles across the river, accessing the boat via a wooden pontoon - an early "roll-on roll-off" ferry! This in turn was replaced by the first bridge in 1899. Although made of wood, it included stone plinths that remain today with an inscription marking the origin of the current concrete and steel monster.

Then great excitement and the biggest event to hit this village - the arrival of the Highland Railway in 1868! Imagine those iron horses bellowing steam, breaking the tranquility of the valley as the line extended north to Inverness. Because of the junction with the ferry this settlement was selected for a station and Boat of Garten was its given name. By 1900 the station and track employed a staff of about 30 and houses, church and associated services were built to accommodate them, giving rise to the village we see today.

It's not surprising that an area of such outstanding beauty, with one of the greatest salmon rivers in Scotland on its doorstep, should have attracted visitors keen to access the great outdoors. In the Edwardian era the village boomed and beautiful sandstone villas were constructed, many of which continue to serve tourists today as Guest Houses and Hotels. The Speyside Way, a 66 mile-route from Aviemore to Buckie on the Moray coast passes through here, so walkers will stop to grab a pint or a sandwich - or on that day in July when the sun shines it might even be an icecream!

The large villa in the Gallery was for many years the Granlea Guest House, and every year I'd come with my family for our annual visit. I thought I knew the village well but things have changed! Like many of these small villages the residents have established a very active Community Group which has enabled them to access grants and funding from Government and other Trusts and organisations. I remember attending ceilidhs in the local Church hall but thanks to the efforts of the group the village now has a new state-of-the-art community hall. Another exciting project in 2002 was the creation of a Community Garden in a small parcel of ground next to the railway station - a little oasis tucked away out of site that I hadn't even noticed! Their current project is to raise the funds to convert the village's old curling pond area into an asphalt pump track for the use of bikers, skateboarders and online skaters.

They may have been held up this year but I'm sure with their energy and drive it won't be too long.

Another innovation has been the development of several trails in the woodland surrounding the village and heading off down one of these I came across something which is part of the culture of these parts - a fairy hill. Scotland has its own unique set of superstitions developed to give protection to those people and things we hold dear. We may laugh at them today but in the harsh environment of the Highlands where life could be tenuous, the Gaelic culture of the Siths - the "still folk" or "silently-moving people" held a firm hold. They lived in dwellings underground, in hills or in green mounds following parallel occupations and activities to the humans above. Notorious for thefts and abductions, the greatest fear was that they would steal your child before you had it baptised into the protection of the Church and in its place they would leave a changeling. Protection from their attentions came in a number of forms - the Bible - obviously, an old shoe burned on the fire, iron in any form including a nail driven into the front board of your bed, a knife or fish hook in your pocket etc. Urine, unsurprisingly, was considered to be offensive to them and maistir (sour urine) was liberally sprinkled around doorposts and windows!

These fairy folk were believed to be particularly adept at music and dance, with their instrument of choice being the bagpipes or fairy pipes. So you can imagine as I came across this fairy hill deep in the woods I wouldn't have been surprised to hear the drone of pipes and general merriment coming from within. Nothing but the wind and the birds in the trees. We may scoff but many of these superstitions are now embedded in our culture. I remember as a child going with my Grandpa every day to the woods behind our home to leave a sweet or some other treat for the fairy folk that lived in the hollow in a particular tree! As you can see from the attention lavished on this particular mound there's still a lot of believers today.

Lots more to write about the attractions of Boat of Garten in future blogs but if you like what you've read so far you may be interested to known that the village is likely to be one of two overnight stops in the new Rick Steves Scotland in 14 Days tour planned to start in 2021 - fingers and toes crossed!

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Hi Liz! I absolutely love reading your posts! Scotland is such a wonderful country, my favorite of course! Thank you for sharing.

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