Nan Shepherd on the house ‘up by’

Nan Shepherd on the house ‘up by’

Nan Shepherd on James McGregor and the Downies of Braemar in The Wild Geese.We never climbed Morrone but we stopped to look at its ancient knobble of glass in one of the windows, to speak to the old people and perhaps be allowed to peep in at the door of the old house (“up by” as it always was to us after we became habitués of the new cottage lower down) and see the deas, the box-bed, the plate-rack reaching to the roof and gleaming with flowered plates and bowls’, Nan Shepherd wrote in a piece on the Downies of Braemar for The Deeside Field magazine in 1962.

You can now read the article in full in Wild Geese.

The house ‘up by’ she’s talking about was Downie’s Cottage. And the Downie story goes something like this:

The Downies of Braemar

In around 1840, John and Catherine Downie came from Corriemulzie to Tomintoul croft on Morrone, Braemar.

They arrived with one son, John, and over the next seventeen or so years crammed six more children into the little croft which is thought to be the highest working farm in Scotland. It sits, still, to the hill on a corner of Morrone, just below where the Field Club indicator stands.

Abandoned sometime between the wars, the cottage was in ruins for years until its new owners, Calum and Jackie Innes opened its door and found the cottage almost exactly as it was when the last of the Downies died and it was closed up.

A restoration project

Listed category A by Historic Scotland, Downie’s cottage has been lovingly and painstakingly restored and is now available as a holiday let. You can book it here. And you can see all the stages of its restoration here.

In the early 1900s, if Nan had been allowed more than a peep in through the door of the cottage she would have seen the three other box beds needed to accommodate the Downie brood.

There was another downstairs and two more in the attic where the walls, eaves and even the doors were papered with layers of magazine and newspaper cuttings – presumably to keep the damp and draughts at bay.

The box-bed Nan spied would have been the one in the kitchen opposite the fireplace with its timber ‘hingin lum’. And until restoration work began, the wooden hanging chimney, beams and box beds were blackened by the brook of years of open fires.

John, the eldest of the Downie’s children married and went to shepherd at Invercauld. Their other two sons, William and James, after their father’s death in 1879, took over the running of the croft.

Nan Shepherd’s first ascent

In the summer of 1928, it was James Downie who was there to greet Nan when she returned from her very first Ben MacDhui ascent. A mountain guide like his father before him, Downie was a teller of stout tales.

Some of his stories were extremely funny, but he was not one to laugh much. According to Shepherd there was nothing tender or domestic about him and by 1928, James Downie was living by himself in the bothy, leaving the cottage to his sisters, Jessie and Kate.

Downie’s Cottage taken from the road into Braemar adjacent to the cemetery. You can just make out the red roof on the slopes of Morrone. Photography copyright Charlotte Peacock.

There’s more on the “lost” Highland croft and its loving restoration here.

As for the ‘doon by’ house, watch this space for more on this and Shepherd’s friendship with James ‘Creeper’ MacGregor.

And you’ll find more in Into the Mountain

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