When the season bends towards autumn, the woods that line the banks of the River Garry start to glow with fire. On 17th October we took a walk along the Killiecrankie Gorge, just north of Dunkeld, with leaves tumbling all around us and mist rising slowly off the water to reveal a landscape that was burnished with gold.
The air was icy, and frost was melting from the topmost branches as the sun caught them, sending droplets pattering to the woodland floor. From the steep banks, noisy little rills of water poured in a headlong plunge down to the river, their fall broken by cushions of ferns and mosses. After a few weeks of dry weather the water was low, but bare rocks and snagged clumps of dead foliage showed the astonishing level that it can reach after heavy rain.
We’ve visited Killiecrankie before, but it was later in the year, when most of the leaves had fallen and the bare branches were wearing a ghostly coating of frost. The lighting was challenging – as I think it always is, in this deep gorge – and the trees were half-wreathed in shadow, standing in silence.
Not so silent in mid-October, with leaves rattling down from the canopy at the rate of two or three per second. I remembered the slaughter that had taken place here – in 1689 this was the scene of a dreadful battle between Highlanders and Redcoats in the first Jacobite uprising – and to me it seemed as if the falling leaves were like souls re-living their own end. Then, about half-way along the path to the bridge, we came across the Balfour Stone, which marks the spot where a Government soldier was killed: Brigadier Barthold Balfour, an officer under the command of General Hugh MacKay of Scourie. The stone is said to mark Balfour’s grave. We stopped and regarded it for a few moments, and I reflected for about the hundredth time that you can’t walk two steps in this country without treading on history. How many others fell and were buried here, men of both sides? No wonder Killiecrankie has so many tales of haunting.
“MacKay’s left wing broke almost at once under the onslaught, as Balfour’s infantry fled downhill towards the river, and then tried to escape down the valley… Pursued by the MacLeans, many men were cut down before they even reached its mouth, while the survivors were killed as they became jammed together on the narrow path through the gorge… Among the dead was Balfour himself, supposedly slain by the Reverend Robert Steuart of Ballechin after he had contemptuously refused an offer of quarter.”
‘Clan, King and Covenant: History of the Highland Clans from the Civil War’ by John Leonard Roberts
From a pedestrian bridge over the gorge you can admire the spectrum of colour produced by birch, beech, oak, hazel, sycamore and wych elm, punctuated by dark green columns of Douglas fir. It is a dazzling sight, made even more magical because it’s so transitory.
After a lingering spell of warmth, the show of autumn colour is only just getting under way; I’m sure that last year the leaves turned earlier, and it’s surprising how the intensity varies from year to year. There may be a late flush if we have a few more frosts, with no storms to strip the trees before we can enjoy them.
Killiecrankie is managed by the National Trust for Scotland. The woodland walks are open daily, all year round, and there is no admission fee. The Visitor Centre has a bookshop and café (seasonal opening – check the NTS website for full details).
Photos copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf
Killiecrankie – haunted by memories
You can read more about the Battle of Killiecrankie in this post on The Hazel Tree.