Caught by the River

Walking the River Don

11th March 2016

unnamed-3 DonDeeTree by Roddy Mathieson. Prints available from Tayberry Gallery

Words: Ruth Tauber

We stepped out of the garden, walked the hundred metres to the first bridge, and instead of following the road, went to the river. My dad and stepmum, their little black dog, my sister, her partner, her baby and me. Together we left the metalled roads behind and clambered over fences and rough ground to look at the valley I spent the first seventeen years of my life in, from the angle of the water that drains it.

From the banks of the Don, in North East Scotland, the hills looked different, their ice-burnished forms swelled to what seemed like a greater height. The Don, its source on the eastern side of the Cairngorm mountains, gathers water from tributaries on its way to Aberdeen, where it nearly meets the Dee, its sister river.  As we walked alongside the river, over glacial sediment, and weaving between hillocks and mountains, so our family’s geography changed. Tauber is the name of another river, a tributary of the River Main in western Germany, but the Don is the one we know.

It was the shortest day. The fields were quiet. In a few weeks the air would be scattered with the calls of returning birds, but for now it was just the rush of the river, the rustle of the occasional blackbird in the leaves, and the sound of our footsteps.

Aside from decades of life lived there, we are rooted in this landscape by a love for Sunset Song, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s tale of a farming community not unlike this one. We debated the merits of the film adaptation, reminisced about the characters like they were old friends, leafed through an old copy of the book. We see our own story in it, a conflict between the land and the books, the heart and the mind.

We take pleasure in this landscape of space; we know the feel and the smell of the earth. It’s an agricultural patchwork which changes with the hues of the season. Late summer is yellow of barley fields turning, stitched together with the green of closely grazed fields and the purple of the grouse moors up above. Winter is a brown quilt, or blanketed in white.

By the river, dippers flitted from rock to rock. Water curled into meanders, speeding up on the outside bends, eating the river bank at a greater pace than on the inside.

The pools on the Don are named, marked by signs nailed to trees. Skinner’s Pot. ‘After who?’ I asked dad. ‘Ach maybe the fisherman or gillie who found the spot,’ he said, his affected Doric* a habit my sister and I used to squawk at when we were younger. But the language suits this landscape, and I too find myself resorting to shortened vowels and words with the rhythm of the land. I thought of the foreword to Sunset Song, cadenced and opaque for those who have not grown up with the Doric language, but laced with the dry humour and wry observations of this small community.

There are four bridges on the seven-mile stretch of river we walked that day. First, the new green bridge, its predecessor cut up and taken for scrap a few months ago. It was a late Victorian engineering success, of a latticed girder design, and for over a hundred years had enabled people to cross the river freely, first on horses, then in motorcars which morphed in shape as the decades and design pushed forward. My sister and I crossed it twice a day, cycling to and from school, we played under it and swam when the weather was warm. We were told that the bridge had been a salvaged part of the doomed Tay Bridge.

The bridge shared a similar design to the Tay Bridge, but an expert informed me that no part of that Bridge was re-used elsewhere in the country. The Tay bridge was left at the bottom of the estuary, an underwater graveyard for lives taken by the disaster, when a train crossing the bridge on a windy night on 28th December 1879 was enough extra weight to let the wind tear the bridge down. It wasn’t until the train didn’t reach the signal box at the other side that they could be sure it was gone.

The idea that our bridge had been part of this disaster in some way was a myth, but it gave us local knowledge, it allowed us some ownership of the structure.

The designer of the Tay Bridge, Thomas Bouch, went from being the toast of Victorian engineering circles to an outsider as fast as his bridge fell. But, out of the tragedy, one of Scotland’s most remarkable engineering features was born. Thomas Bouch’s designs for the Forth Rail Bridge were thrown out: public fear demanded a stronger design. The bridge that stands now could carry ten times the weight of the trains that cross it. The striking red beams, angled this way and that, allowing passengers to pass freely between Edinburgh and the North, will stand long after the road bridge beside it has been chopped up and taken for scrap.

It was on crossing that feat of engineering, as an impressionable teenager on his way to visiting his brother at St Andrews, that my father decided to continue his family’s migration. Inspired by the Forth Bridge, he enrolled to study engineering at Aberdeen University. He left his German parents in London, and settled in the landscape that we now walked in.

We came to the second bridge on the Don. The plain concrete, no doubt white when it was installed, is now a patchy grey.

The day was also grey, the ground underfoot tender. The river mapped the easiest route across debris from a long-since melted glacier. The stones in the river are rounded with the constant movement of the water. Nearby, there’s a Pictish hill fort. We visited it years ago, tramping through fields to reach a pile of stones atop a hill. ‘They must have carried them from the river bed.’ Dad said, eyeing the smooth round stones.

From the river bank we could see the manse our childhood friends had lived in, shrouded in the grey shadow of the beech trees that gave it its name. To the left a converted steading, once home to cattle in the winter months, now houses the family of the local vet.

We came to the blue bridge. My sister went home with her baby – his two-toothed smile lit up the fresh air but his cheeks were pinched red with the cold. We could see where previous floods had lodged debris in trees, combed the grasses to the angle of the water’s flow.

A little further on there was a black bow arch bridge made of steel, riveted together. This bridge seemed only to provide access to two fields, hemmed in by banks on either side. I was surprised such a bridge could be justified only to serve two fields. Perhaps it was put in place by a farmer to carry the machines that could work the land so much more efficiently in the early twentieth century. The closing sermon from the minister in Sunset Song ushers in this new phase in agriculture: ’And the land changes… we are told that great machines come soon to till the land, and the great herds come to feed on it, the crofter is gone, the man with the house and the steading of his own and the land closer to his heart than the flesh on his body.’

One such machine, a car, lies dissected upstream.  Hidden for years under the cover of plantation spruce trees, as the trees have grown taller, so the debris underneath has been revealed. On an earlier walk dad and I examined the wreck, a long scooped wheel arch a clue to the age of the vehicle. Maybe it was one of the first to come to this glen, long before this family did.

We left the river bank then, crossing the field, stalks of barley scratching the mud from the underside of our boots. Our destination was St Bride’s Kirk of Kildrummy. I’d passed the wee kirk hundreds of times, on my way to and from the big school in Alford. The kirk’s situation was noticeable, the graves spread over the hilltop like a cap. In the graveyard there’s a recumbent sandstone effigy of the Laird and Lady of Brux from the 1400s. It’s protected from the elements by a wooden door with fine, mock medieval ironwork.

We sheltered behind a gravestone for some sweet lemony tea. As we made our way down to the kirk, I noticed a gravestone: In Loving Memory of Lillias Grassick, wife of George Gibbon. I recalled then that Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s mother had come from Kildrummy. It was from his mother he had taken his pen name, a more unusual sound than the name he was give at birth: James Leslie Mitchell. I remembered too, a childhood visit to a gravestone in Frankfurt, the name Tauber in gold letters against black granite. Dad took us there to see it before it disappeared. The family had decided to stop paying for the upkeep of a grave in a country in which they did not live. I am glad to have the memory of it, but the landscape and rivers around Frankfurt are not my home. It is the fishing pools, bridges identified by their colour, eroding meanders of the river and the cries of inland seagulls in Upper Donside that will always be my home.

*Doric is the indigenous language of the North East of Scotland, a version of Scots with more in common with its Norse neighbours. It is spoken widely in the farming communities of North East Scotland, and used in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s ‘Sunset Song.’