Bovaglie, Glen Girnock

This is an abandoned house in Glen Girnock, but it still has a name: Bovaglie, once a ferm-toun of sixteen long houses scattered around three wells. I took this picture back in June 2008. It may have been my first visit, I don’t recall. I’m not sure if this was the first digital photograph I made here, but I would return to Bovaglie another six times. 

Why? What do I want to achieve? Do I want people to see my images of these abandoned houses and be angry, puzzled, sad, or all three? I was certainly puzzled – I wanted to know about Bovaglie’s story.

The first place I normally refer to when I need to find out about an abandoned dwelling in Aberdeenshire is Robert Smith’s book, Land of the Lost. Disappointingly, all that is mentioned is: ‘The shuttered windows of Bovaglia tell the old story; this was once a busy fermtoun, now it is dead and deserted.’  Why the difference in spelling the name?

A search of the internet found Peter J Gordon’s work. According to his book Deeside Tales, this abandoned house has had the following spellings recorded in various documents over the centuries:

1358 - Botwaglach
1607 - Bogvalich
1666 - Balbaglie
1698 - Bavaglich
1725 - Bovaglai
1764 - Bovaglack
1782 - Belvaglech
1799 - Bevaglie
1806 - Bavagly
1822 - Balvaglay
1848 - Balvagly
1860 – Balvaglie

What is surprising to me is how far back people have lived at this wild spot in the glen.

In John Milne’s Celtic Place Names of Aberdeenshire, the meaning of Bovaglie is given as:

‘Bovaglie (Both Faicille). Guard-house. Both, house; faicille, gen. of faicill, watch, guard. The house had been occupied by persons guarding cattle in a glen against thieves. F and v, and c and g are interchangeable.’

I can see how Both or Bothag (hut or house ) contributes to the ‘Bot’ or ‘Bov’ in the name, but the gaelic faicille or facill? The best gaelic word I could find that meant ‘guard’, but also when pronounced in gaelic could contribute to ‘valich’ or ‘vaglech’ in the Bovaglie name, was rabhadh. But who am I to disagree with John Milne?

Bovaglie sits in a commanding position at the southern end of the Girnock, staring straight into the coires of Lochnagar, and this could indeed be a place to ‘guard’ cattle – or keep an eye out for the gauger! By the side of Bovaglie, the track turns eastwards through the woods and onwards to the Genechal, the Distillery, and eventually to Balmoral.
The wood that surrounds Bovaglie, ‘haps Bovaglie ferm like a plaid’, which, of course, inspired J.Scott Skinner’s tune Bovaglie’s Plaid.
Researching into the history of an abandoned place before I make my first field trip is a way to make connections with the people who once lived there. It gives my imagination the means to visualise traces of their past. How else can I get a sense of the spirit of the place? It not only makes me consider their way of life, but also the way we now live our lives and how things have changed, for better and for worse.

From the history of the name it appears Bovaglie has been inhabited for a long time, so are there any stories about the people who lived and worked there? Peter Gordon’s Deeside Tales, gives a sense of the area and some clues that help explain why it has been abandoned. The following text (in italics) comes from his website.

Bovaglie shared the communal 12 oxen plough, ‘twal ousen plough’, with the neighbouring farms of Camlet and Loinveg, each farm providing 4 oxen. In many other glens, horses replaced oxen but in Girnock, they couldn’t afford horses and had little knowledge of how to handle and look after them. So, by the mid 1800s., ploughmen from other areas were ‘fee’d’ to do the ploughing.
The ruin of Loinveg

Cattle were tried in the glen and droving up to early 19th century, but market fluctuations made it a precarious trade. Turnip cultivation helped to feed cattle over winter, and after 1840s, winter fattened cattle were taken to markets by rail, but small glens like Girnoc suffered, being further away from railways and markets. Bovaglie and much of the glen turned to sheep farming, which required less farm workers. That said, under the tenanacy of Donald Gordon, (‘Red Gordon’ or ‘Auld Prodeegous’), a new farmhouse was built at Bovaglie in 1860 for Donald and his wife Margaret. This new farmhouse is the one we can visit today. In 1866, Bovaglie had 2,000 acres of hill pasture and employed 10 shepherds and 5 servants, (in 1826, Bovaglie had only 18 acres).

Bovaglie steading

Donald Gordon lost three children to smallpox at Bovaglie.

After this, Donald bought a property in Dee St in Aberdeen, for the family to stay during the long, hard winters.

This indicates how well financially Donald Gordon was doing at Bovaglie.
Decay reminds me of my own impermanence, and that, paradoxically, keeps me more alive, tuned in to the moment. I find beauty in decay, odd as that may sound – even subversive to some. Decay isn’t normally seen as beautiful. It’s filthy, unclean, stinking, and rotting. Decay is the opposite of society’s vision of success, of achievement.

What we have abandoned, the elements claim. Nature slowly conquers as it makes its home. Entropy. The land will endure.
In Deeside Tales, it is suggested that Bovaglie may have survived, indeed flourished, where other farms failed, due to Queen Victoria’s mutton larder. (Royalty never owned Bovaglie, but did have 3 x 40 year leases from Abergeldy Estate.)

However, with the decline in cattle farming, and the poor, marginal land in the many parts of the glen, combined with the end of the illicit whisky trade, saw many leave the glen for the lowlands, towns, cities, England and abroad. By 1872, Bovaglie ferm-toun  was already being described as a ‘shapeless heap of ruins’.
I am, in a way, visually archiving this decay and neglect, visually documenting traces of the past, memories, but, more than that, elegant and spacious homes like Bovaglie, abandoned, gaping out to the land, waiting and wondering if anyone will return, they are sources for the historian to show the effects of changing land management and land use, the impact of the industrial revolution, urbanisation and a growth in population.

There is a contemplative aspect to exploring abandoned places like Bovaglie which have lost their economic function. They have been left to rot away, with nature relentlessly reclaiming them. Much for the explorer’s mind to contemplate.

Lizzie Gordon, born in Bovaglie in 1865, stayed there as a spinster until the 1930’s. Bovaglie estate was run by Lizzie’s sister’s son, Victor Cook.
The Merchant family lived and worked at Bovaglie in the late 1930’s and 1940s. Tragically, Charles Merchant got up one morning, pick up his rifle, went to one of the outbuildings at Bovaglie and shot himself. He was 60 years old. Ten years later, his son also committed suicide, in Loch Builg, Glen Gairn. Charles Merchant’s wife and son ‘Wollie’, left Bovaglie soon after.

James Esson was the last to farm Bovaglie between 1957 - 1981. He was there with his wife only. James Esson took his hat off the peg, switched off the lights and closed the door for the last time.
The land was grazed for a while, but due to fencing disputes, much of it was given over to the Forestry Commission.

And that’s the story of Bovaglie. We shouldn’t feel too nostalgic about abandoned places in Aberdeenshire as many left glens like Girnock to find a better life, and many did.

This October I went back to Glen Girnock. It was my 8th visit to this glen and I still find something thrilling there, in the changing effects of decay and nature's relentless encroachment.

James Dyas Davidson

This blog features the work of local photographer James Dyas Davidson
James and Alec would like to think Peter Gordon for allowing us to quote from his work; readers can see more at this is a big chunk of a small story in the whole of time: The man with the Child in his eyes.

The original place-name research into Bovaglie is from Adam Watson.


all by James Dyas Davidson

Gathering was commissioned by Hauser & Wirth, for the Fife Arms Hotel, Braemar; the project was launched in 2015 and will conclude in 2018.

The artist residency at University of Aberdeen is funded by The Leverhulme Trust; the project was launched in July 2016 and will conclude May 2017.