BLACK WOOD OF RANNOCH
by James E. Fargo, FSA Scot
We know from Scottish history books, that the old Caledonian Forest once covered over 2,100 square miles of Scotland. The Perthshire remnant of this ancient native pine forest is called "the Black Wood of Rannoch". This remnant lies on the south side of Loch Rannoch (the ‘slios garbh' or rough side, to distinguish it from the gentler and smoother slopes of the ‘slios min' or north side of the loch. The woods stretch from the loch side at 670 feet to about 1,000 feet above sea level and begin a few miles west of the village of Kinloch Rannoch at the former crofting communities of Carie on its eastern side and Camghouran on the western side. In the western half of the woods, the pines are short and heavily branched. The eastern half, near Dall (former home of our 18th clan chief) the pines are tall and thinner.
Our clan folk were not always good guardians of the Black Wood. The remoteness and trackless cover of the forest gave security and protection to rievers and broken (clan-less) men. Many living on the north side of Loch Rannoch would have been MacGregors driven from their own homes by Campbells who then relied on plunder and cattle raiding to survive. On numerous occasions the woods were set alight to drive them and wolves away from our communities. These fires might burn for weeks, destroying acres of trees.
Local tradition has it that the last wolf killed in Scotland was not killed at Lochaber but at Rannoch in the early 1700s. The story goes that the wolf was killed by the wife of a miller named Robertson with a potato masher when it attempted to steal her child. The wolf had escaped from a wolf hunt on the south shore of the Loch Rannoch by swimming to the north shore and been attracted to the home by the smells coming from the kitchen. Upon entering the kitchen, the horrified wife fought to protect her child. She was handsomely rewarded for this deed by our clan chief, and the mill was thereafter known as Mullinvadie or "the mill of the wolf".
For the most part, our chiefs were content to live off the income supplied from harvesting timber. In 1733, Alexander Robertson of Struan (13th chief) supplied wood for the building of General Wade's bridge over the Tay at Aberfeldy. Wade and Struan were "friends" despite Struan being a zealous Jacobite. The building of bridges and the military roads opened up our homeland to wider markets for Rannoch fir wood from which he gained considerable income during the remainder of his life. Upon his forest return from exile in France in 1703, the fir woods provided the funds to build the ‘Hermitage' at Mount Alexander which we know as Dunalastair.
The Black Wood had been part of our clan's possessions since the days of our first chief when he acquired the entire south side of Loch Rannoch by marriage to one of the daughters of Malcolm, relative of the earl of Lennox. The north side of Loch Rannoch was similarly acquired by the Menzies chief when he married the other daughter of Malcolm. The Black Wood portion of the estate along with the house at Dall was sold to the Wentworth family in 1857. The 18th chief (George Duncan Robertson) had to sell the Dunalastair estate and moved to Dall in 1853. After the sale of Dall, he moved into Rannoch Barracks, which had been built to house the officers of the Hanoverian officers stationed in Rannoch to keep the peace after the "'45". Prior to the 1857 sale, the Black Wood was only out of our clan's possession twice.
The barony of Strowan was annexed by the Crown in 1690 after our "Poet chief", Alexander Robertson, refused to acknowledge the succession of William of Orange to the British throne. The barony was returned to this chief in 1727. Dunalastair was burned to the grounds after Culloden and Struan went into hiding in the Black Wood at Carie. After his death in 1749, the barony was again taken over by "The Commissioners of Forfeited Estates and Barons of the Exchequer". On the whole, the commissioners managed the property well, with the income from the estate used to benefit the residents of the local communities, build Rannoch Barracks for the soldiers stationed at the west end of Loch Rannoch, build and repair roads and bridges throughout Atholl. In 1751, the Commissioners gave the "tack of the fir woods, sawmill and house" to John Robertson of Tulliebelton, merchant and Provost of Perth, "to cut 2,000 fir trees yearly and no more, for the space of three years, and for the tack duty of 350 pounds sterling." In 1766, the factor for the annexed estate of Strowan, Captain James Small, provided half of the cost of building a new bridge across the Errochty Water just below Struan Kirk. The other half was provided by voluntary contributions from the surrounding neighbors who used the bridge. This bridge is still in use today. The barony, including the Black Wood, was restored to our 15th chief, Colonel Alexander Robertson (son of Duncan Robertson of Drumachune, 14th chief) by the government in 1784.
At the beginning of the 19th century, a commercial concern began felling operations. Transport was their great difficulty, but labor was plentiful and cheap. To offset the transport difficulties, an elaborate system of canals were built within the Black Wood. Traces of three levels of canals and collecting basins can still be seen today to send logs down to and into Loch Rannoch. The logs were then floated down to the eastern end of the loch, then down to Loch Tummel and eventually to the Tay. Once the Tay was reached, the logs were probably rafted together and floated down to Perth then on to Dundee. Fortunately for the Black Wood, the project proved to be unprofitable and was abandoned. The Black Wood continued to be the home to various peaceful activities (illicit stills, charcoal making and hunting).
The Black Wood was saved from harvesting for use in the trenches of the Great War of 1914-1918 because it was more inaccessible. Unfortunately, tremendous amounts of lumber were required for WW II and much was harvested. The land was purchased by the Forestry Commission in 1947 and has been saved and allowed to regenerate.
"Brief Account of the Clan Donnachaidh" by David Robertson, FSA Scot. 1894, pp 3-33.
"Short History of Clan Robertson" by J. Robertson Reid, 1933, pp
"Tales of Rannoch" by Alec D. Cunningham, 1989, pp 37-41.
"The Robertson Heartland" by John Kerr, 1992, pp 3-4.
"Life in the Atholl Glens" by John Kerr, 1993, pp 115-116.
"The Lairds of Glenlyon" by Donald Currie, 1886, pp 103-105, 124-142.