Superstitious Times in the Drowned Land

The village of Newtonmore, Highland home of Stag’s Breath Liqueur, lies within the ancient region of Badenoch – from the Gaelic, the drowned land – so named as the strath floods every Spring with the snow melt from the mountains all around us. We make and bottle Stag’s Breath right here, surrounded by some of the most beautiful countryside on earth.

The village of Newtonmore nestles amongst the trees below and MollytheStagsBreathWestie nestles amongst the grasses of the local croft.

Stories from the mists of time and throughout hundreds of years of history abound in Badenoch and we recently attended a local lecture on the tale of the ‘Black Officer’ An t–Othaichear Dubh, Captain John Macpherson (born Glentruim 1730 and died Gaick 1800). He was so-called for his less than favourable character traits that made him “servile to superiors, agreeable to his equals when he chose and tyrannical to his inferiors”. When he met his unfortunate end in an avalanche whilst out hunting it was said to be punishment for his being in league with the Devil for so many years.

The lands that were once farmed by Captain John Macpherson at Ballachroan behind Newtonmore with Craig Dhu (the black rock) in the background.
All this prompted us to pop up last Sunday to the ruins of Macpherson’s house and farm just above Newtonmore at Ballachroan. What remains, apart from some ruined steadings, is the portico of a local church that he acquired to serve as the entrance to his new abode.

All that remains of the 18th Century home of the Black Officer and his family.

The original house

Captain Macpherson was an educated man, a soldier, a Badenoch drover then a tacksman and gentleman farmer at Ballachroan. A tacksman was the link between the Clan chief and the tenants of the clan lands. This allowed Macpherson to have total power over the crofting tenants on the land he rented from the Duke of Gordon. He was also enthusiastically in the business of signing up local men for the various wars being fought abroad at the time – including the Napoleonic Wars and the American War of Independence. He could earn between £10 and £20 a head (£600 and £1200 today) for each good man he delivered to the regiment. It is without doubt that many of these men were sent abroad to fight against their will.

Friend of the Devil?

However, although he was much maligned both during his lifetime, after his death and indeed ever since, there were positive aspects to Macpherson’s life. He was a good farmer, upgrading his land and carrying out extensive building work. His business dealings too, until nearly the end, were successful and meant he lived a very comfortable life, even being in the position to at one time lend money to his superior, the Duke of Gordon. He married late at 55 but had a good family life being blessed with two daughters and a son.

The Black Officer’s Extensive Improvements to Ballachroan Land

But then came the day of reckoning ….

At the very end of the 18th Century – on 2 January 1800 aged 76 – Captain John Macpherson died in an avalanche whilst on a hunting expedition up the Gaick where he had been sheltering in a summer shooting lodge that was swept away in the storm. All five men there were found dead but only the Black Officer echoes down the centuries with the superstitious tales of his dances with the Devil that were picked up and embroidered by leading literary figures of the time such as James Hogg and Sir Walter Scott.

And so we sat amongst the nettles looking out over beautiful Badenoch and toasted those who are fond of a dance with Old Nick.