Boatbuilding on the Spey


 For centuries the men known as timmer floaters rafted timber down the River Spey from the forests of Rothiemurchus to be shipped from Garmouth to the rest of Britain and beyond. Indeed, Archaelogical excavations of the area of the Great Fire of London have uncovered timbers bearing the Rothiemurchus mark.

In 1785 two shipbuilders bought the Glenmore forest from the Duke of Gordon. The men were William Osbourne of Kingston-upon-Hull and his partner, Ralph Dodsworth of York. The pair established a shipyard at Kingston, naming the village after Osbourne’s home town.Their business thrived and some 60 or so wooden  vessels were constructed there before the yard closed in 1815.



Timer floaters in the River Druie, Strathspey, in the early 1900s - a hardy looking bunch of lads

In the late 19th.century the ancient forestry trade boomed in Strathspey. Numerous pit-saws had been built in the Rothiemurchus forests to meet the huge demand for timber needed to feed the boom in railway construction, initially in England and later in Scotland, demand was high.In the winter time crofters and farmers found employment in the forests. They would drag the felled trees to the nearest pit-saw where the timber was cut into railway sleepers. A lack of real roads and railways in Scotland meant that the sleepers had to be floated downriver to Garmouth by means of great rafts. The size of these rafts varied depending on the water level in the Spey. The higher the water, the greater the number of logs. Loads of a hundred and fifty to two hundred sleepers on one raft were common.Each raft was constructed and guided by men known locally as timmer floaters.

Each man was equipped with only a cleek. This was a 12 foot long wooden pole with a hook and point on one end that a skilful floater could use to steer his raft and prevent it running into hazards of which there were many on the 40 mile journey downstream.Among these hazards is a notorious pool on the Tulchan estate where the water level drops by three feet and a number of large rocks and boulders lurk in the river just beyond. In 1798 two young brothers from Knockando, John and William Margach, were floating a raft of logs from the Rothiemurchus forest to Kingston on Spey. Their raft was snagged on the rocks below Tulchan. It was only after much effort and manoeuvring of their load with their cleeks that the brothers eventually worked the raft free but a result of this incident, John and William were late in reaching their destination and as they neared Kingston a strong current was running over the bar of the river as the tide ebbed. A large boat was moored between the mouth of the Spey and the bar, her mooring ropes stretched out wide over the water for quite a distance. The raft was now in the grip of the strong current and was being drawn under the mooring ropes of the wooden vessel with the floaters unable to steer the raft to any great effect.The mooring rope was too high to snag the raft but caught the two helpless brothers who were both tumbled from the raft and tragically swept to their deaths. Their bodies were never recovered.

The floaters were certainly a hardy bunch who wore no protective clothing, just their day to day wear of  mainly woollen clothes that were permanently wet as the men were always up to their knees in water and frequently, deeper.  A man with a cask of whisky would accompany the rafters and a wee dram was taken at each halt on the journey. It is said that these men never suffered from colds and, because their feet were always wet the floaters were never bothered with corns.

On one trip a raft, guided by a skilled floater called Lobban, was stuck on the big rocks at Carron for three hours. By the time he had freed the raft, delivered his load to Garmouth and got paid he had missed the last coach to Grantown and there would be no other coach until the next day. Undaunted, he left his cleek and put his address on it to be sent to Ballindalloch with the coach the next day. He then proceeded to walk the forty miles to his home at Lower Dell.  All that he carried was a small bag o’ meal. He asked for hot water at cottages on the way, then made a bowl of brose and enjoyed a smoke before continuing his walk. He left Garmouth at eleven o’ clock in the morning and  arrived home next morning at six o’ clock, having walked all day and through the night.  After a hearty breakfast he walked the two and a half miles down to the River Spey and started to construct his next raft.

The timmer floaters era came to an end with the coming of the railways. Ironically, the main rail cargo in  the late 19th century was railway sleepers used to build the Scottish railways that became the main transporters of logs from the area.