The following tale won its author the prize of one guinea from ‘The People’s Journal’ for the best local story. On OS Maps the grid reference for the standing stone is NJ 20965 27764, across the River Livet from the Glenlivet distillery and by the farm of Auchorachan. Pleasingly, the standing stone can still be seen atop the brae.
By the main road through Glenlivet from Ballindalloch Station of the Speyside Railway to the village of Tomintoul, the capital of the Banffshire Highlands, the distance is fifteen miles and a half. Between these two places a conveyance runs to and fro daily. The scenery of the Avon (locally A’an) and the Livet is very pretty; the air of the district is pure and bracing, and the number of visitors to Tomintoul (the Square of which is 1100 feet above sea level), is increasing year by year.
If the traveller through Glenlivet will pause a few minutes in his journey nearly opposite the farm of Achorachan at the eighth milestone from Ballindalloch and look Northward down the valley I shall have pleasure in pointing out an object, and in narrating a tradition regarding it. Turning half round to the right, the object to which I would especially direct your attention is that upright stone on the face of the brae, in the middle of what is at present a field of turnips. It is about 200 yards from the road, stands about 6 feet out of the ground, and is apparently composed of grey slate. If that stone could speak, it could no doubt tell many a strange tale of earthly change and vicissitude. As it cannot speak, however, in articulate language, I propose to speak for it, and to rehearse the last remarkable incident in its long and eventful history. The tradition is still quite fresh in the district, and is often referred to, especially by the older folks.
Sixty or seventy years ago the farm of Achorachan was tenanted by a certain Captain Grant, a retired military gentleman. Though a native of Glenlivet, he had spent a good many years abroad, and had seen hard service in those dire campaigns of which Napoleon was the moving spirit. As a military officer he had been accustomed to be obeyed, and like many others, civilian as well as military, he liked to have his own way.
The Captain was a man of a stirring and enterprising disposition; and, now that the turmoil of war was over, he devoted himself with zeal and energy to the peaceful arts of husbandry. He expended large sums in improving waste land and in draining and fencing, and finally he proceeded to the erection of a new farm steading. The great hindrance to the progress of this work, however, was a lack of building stone, a commodity in which the district is somewhat deficient. Long ere the steading approached completion the supply of stones in the immediate neighbourhood had all been used up and it seemed as though the work must in consequence be brought to a standstill. But the Captain was not a man to be easily daunted or lightly turned from his purpose. With a keen eye for building stones, he looked more closely into the resources of the neighbourhood, and one day he said to Sandy Gordon, his grieve and confidential servant—
“Aye, Sandy, this is a fine state of matters, isn’t it? Glenlivet seems to be better supplied with water for making whisky than with stones for building houses. But we are not going to retreat, now that we have advanced so far. I must have stones to complete that steading though I should bring them from the top of Benrinnes, and that is a deuced long way to go for them. But before we proceed further afield it behoves us to make good use of the material that is close at our hand. So to-day you will yoke the oxen to the sledge and bring over that big stone standing on the brow of the brae there; it will make a capital lintel for a byre door.”
“Watna stane, sir?” said Sandy, with something of surprise and awe in his tone. “Ye dinna mean the Standin’ Stane?”
“I mean that stone on the brae,” said the Captain, pointing to the stone in a way that admitted of no misunderstanding; “it’s of no use there, but only in the way of the plough, and, as I say, it will make a capital lintel.”
“Weel, sir,” said Sandy, seriously, “stanes may be scarce, an’ scarce eneuch, but I wadna advise ye to meddle wi’ that ane.”
“Why not?” asked the Captain sharply.
“Weel, ye see, sir, it’s nae a common stane an’ shouldna be put till a common use. I’ve heard it said that it was ance pairt o’ a kirk or place o’ worship, or in some way or ither conneckit wi’ religion, an’ therefore sacred. Onyway, it’s been there a lang time, it doesna tak’ up muckle room, an’ the place wad look queer-like withoot it. For-bye,” said Sandy, “it’s nae lucky to meddle wi’ things o’ that kind.”
“All nonsense!” said the Captain, laughing, “downright nonsense! But I think I remember hearing such stuff about the stone, and perhaps I believed it when I was a raw lad; but I got all such superstitious notions knocked out of my head in the Peninsula and Belgium. This is a utilitarian age, Sandy, and if a thing is useful there is no reason why it should not be used, whether it be part of a church or a fortress. So bring over the stone. I will take my chance of the luck.”
Sandy had, therefore, no help for it but set to the task as he was ordered, though he did so with very bad grace, muttering at intervals, “Gey wark; nae regaird for onything noo-a-days! It’ll maybe be a dear stane till him; but, hooever, I warned him weel,” and so on.
The standing stone was duly built into the wall, the whole steading was by-and-by completed, the byres were filled with valuable cattle, and it might reasonably have been expected that the Captain would now enjoy the reward of his labour, and be happy and prosperous ever afterwards.
But no! Such is the perversity of fate, and the vanity of human schemes and efforts! The man’s troubles and difficulties were only beginning. A strange and virulent disease broke out among his cattle. It was worse in one of the byrce than in the others. No cure that was tried had any effect. All the cattle doctors of the district, professional and amateur, were called and consulted, but though each confidently prescribed his or her own peculiar remedy, the disease still held on its way unchecked. One animal after another was seized, and one after another died. It seemed as though not a living “nowt” would be left about the place. The Captain was at his wit’s end and greatly disheartened, for he saw ruin staring him in the face.
“By George, Sandy,” said he, “this is the most terrible enemy I ever encountered—all the more so that it is hidden and unknown. My efforts to oppose it are mere shots in the air. It seems there is nothing for me to do but look on at the slaughter and bury the carcasses of the dead. It is most extraordinary.”
“I think I ken what’s the matter wi’ the beasts,” said Sandy.
“You do? Then what the dickens is it?”
“It’s no the dickens ava—no the dockans—but the stane.”
“The stone! the gravel, you mean? Not like that at all.”
“Na, na, but the standin’-stane that ye garred me tak’ frae the brae there.”
The Captain gave a long whistle, and slapped his thigh. “Oh, I remember!” he said, as if to himself, “By George, there may be something in it after all. Certainly that particular byre has suffered worst all along. Very well, if I have made a mistake, I hope I am not above owning it and correcting it. And the sooner the cure is applied the better.”
Misfortune had humbled and softened the Captain. He was in a mood to try anything that might check the dreadful plague. His superstitious feeling had not been dead, but only asleep. It was not thoroughly roused, and like a dammed-up stream that has burst its barriers, it now swept forth carrying all before it. The masons were immediately summoned to remove the stone from the wall, the oxen were yoked to the sledge, and drew it along the brae, and so anxious was the Captain to wipe out all cause of offence that he went and with his own hands assisted to replace the stone, and to fix it exactly in its old position.
“But, of course, the disease continued,” observes the intelligent reader or visitor. Nay, with your leave, it did not. It abated; at least tradition distinctly avers it abated; and it is with the tradition we are dealing. It may indeed have been a mere coincidence that the disease disappeared when the mysterious stone was removed, for the disease may have run its natural course. At anyrate, the tradition is clear on the point, that the stone took the disease away with it. There can be no doubt that the stone was taken away from the place where it stands and again put back there. It bears unmistakable evidence of the use that was attempted to be made of it, there being particles of mason’s lime still adhering to hit. If the affair had occurred half a century earlier, very likely we should now be asked to believe that the stone went back to its old position of itself. But the tradition, being a nineteenth century one, does not put too great a strain upon our credulity. The capacity of the stone for causing and removing cattle disease has never again been put to the test. For though in the district building stone is still as scarce as ever, yet from that day to this nobody has meddled with the Standing Stone of Achorachan, and the stone has meddles with nobody.