THE SAD TALE OF BARBARA McINTOSH

Fragments of material cut from Barbara's clothing by James Stewart of Derrybeg to prove the tale. It was James who opened her shallow grave.

 

‘fra birt to graif na rest we haif - (1571)’

(Inscription on tombstone at Alves graveyard)

The above sentiment, carved by an unknown stonemason at Alves reflects the belief that, after a lifetime of hard toil for little or no reward, there is an eternity of peace to look forward to when you are finally laid to rest in this world.

Here is a story from Aberlour that will give even the staunchest believer pause for thought.

On the north – west slopes of Ben Rinnes is a place identified on modern maps as Babie or Baby's Hill but, more correctly, known locally as Babble’s Moss. Here there is a hollow that at one time was recognised as the march between three local estates. For generations the inhabitants of the surrounding countryside dug their supply of winter peats there. As with so much local history, the gradual renaming of this area of Ben Rinnes on successive versions of maps over the generations may cause the story of the original name to be lost.

The origin of the name ‘Babbies Moss’ is a sorrowful tale concerning a young lass, Barbara McIntosh who, in the late 1750's,lived at Rhinnachat Farm, close by the mountain and the Ben Rinnes Inn that lay almost three miles south of the modern village of Aberlour. The parish at that time was called Skirdustan. Barbara was a local beauty who had married a local lad John McIntosh and together they settled to live on the farm. As is often the way, married life began happily but after a while, poor harvests, long hours of hard labouring and ill luck with their stock made the running of the farm a dour and unrewarding task.

Shortly after the birth of her second child her husband deserted her and, with other local men walked to Ballindalloch Castle to take the Kings shilling and enlisted in the Banffshire Company of the 42nd Highland regiment, now The Black Watch, to fight in the French and Indian wars in North America and Canada.

The shame of abandonment by her wayward husband and the effects of relentless, pinching poverty affected Babble’s mind. Barbara is last recorded as being on the poor List of the Parish of Aberlour in 1761 and it may fairly be assumed that this was the year that another failed harvest drove the young woman over the brink.

One day, in her desperation, she took a length of rope and walked from the farm for the last time, she made her way across the adjoining field to the side of the Burn of Derrybeg that tumbles from Ben Rinnes, under the bridge of Derrybeg, to join the River Spey, and she hanged herself on a wayside tree on the road from Ben Rinnes to Carron.

Superstitious and God fearing, the local population deemed it sacrilege for a suicide to be buried in a grave in consecrated ground and a Christian burial at the auld Kirk o Skirdustan was denied her.

Christianity had spread a very thin veneer over ancient beliefs and superstitions that lingered long in the Highlands. Water and the boundaries between lands were deemed to have mystical properties even into Christian times. Healing virtue was attributed to water taken from a ford where the dead were carried and the living walked across. A south-going stream had special virtue for a believer who washed in or drank of this water. If a stream ran by a place where land boundaries met this was a suitable spot in which to dip some article of clothing and which was thereafter taken home and in consequence was believed to be a means of foretelling the future. This belief in the mystic powers inherent in such a place was the origin of the superstition of burying a person who took their own life at a place where two or three lands met. And so it was that and the slopes of Ben Rinnes were chosen by a group of caring locals to be Barbara’s resting place. Her lonely grave was to be dug in the area of the mountain known then as the Three Lairds Boundaries.

Local women cared for Babble’s body. Her hair and body were tenderly washed and the lass was carefully dressed in a clean blue petticoat and shawl before being wrapped in a tartan plaid. Babbie was then tied with straw ropes to an old door made of deal boards and this crude stretcher was hoisted up by the burial party of some kindly disposed men of the parish who were willing to carry Babbie to what all believed would be her final resting place.

It was late in the year and stormy, with snow beginning to lie on the Ben. The weather broke and a storm lashed down on the struggling burial party as they toiled up the arduous winding track that snakes up the steep side of the Ben to the Moss. Exhausted and soaked to the skin, the men got halfway up the hill but some could go no farther because of the wild storm that raged around them. They left the others and began to walk back down the hill. As they descended the men thought that they could hear voices in the wind and at one point the group disturbed a covey of grouse. With a loud beating  of their wings, the birds flew off, noisily screaming their distinctive call of “Goback! Goback! Goback!” This unsettled the group who took it as a sign to return to the main party and after a brief discussion all decided to bury the lass where they stood.
The men gathered stones from the rough heathery ground and built a small cairn to mark the lonely location of the shallow grave in which Babbie lay peacefully until the middle of the following century.
Tradition tells us that some 100 years later the true story surrounding Barbara McIntosh was lost and the facts of her death were changed beyond all recognition.

The poor lass was said to have been a witch, a child murderer and all the usual negative accusations made about women over the centuries were attributed to her. Two local lads, doubting the weird stories surrounding Babble’s Moss decided to see for themselves the so-called grave of Barbara McIntosh. They should have known better. They were both educated men, students at Aberdeen University. One of them was the son of the minister of Premnay parish in Aberdeenshire and the other, the son of a much respected octogenarian farmer of Balliemulloch, later took up a very high position in the Indian Medical Service.

In September 1855, in the company of James Stewart of Derrybeg, who had agreed to act as gravedigger, the lads clambered up the hill with their picks and spades and high hopes of putting an end to all the granny tales of yesteryear.

Despite feelings of foreboding that had increased as they neared the Moss. They reached the spot, dismantled the cairn, cleared away the mossy soil and discovered her, still remarkably fresh, with most of the features & hair intact. Her features were spoiled by a blow from the spade as the dug down some eighteen inches into the ground. Babble’s petticoats & shawl were in perfect condition and the colours of the tartan plaid that her body had been wrapped in so long ago was as bright as the day it was woven. James Stewart cut fragments from her clothing to prove their tale and these fragments are now in the possession of his grandson who still lives in Aberlour.
The boys claimed that the body was re-buried in its lonely grave and the cairn rebuilt. Their story was taken with a large pinch of salt and disbelief in the area but the truth of their story is confirmed in a newspaper article written in the 'Elgin Courant' dated 28th September 1855.

"…...some days ago, two individuals, with the view of testing the local tradition, proceeded to the place and removed the cairn. After taking away about 18 inches of earth, they came upon the body of the deceased woman, which they found quite entire.

The features would have been entire had not the spade unfortunately disfigured them. The limbs and the hair of the head were quite fresh. The flesh however, when touched, was of the consistence and colour of clay, and quite inodorous.

Her petticoats, shawl and tartan plaid in which she was wrapped were perfectly fresh and retained their colour. The body had been carried on an old door, which, together with the straw ropes and deal boards, or rather, paling bars, were quite fresh.

The extraordinary preservation of the body and its attendant coverings is doubtless entirely owing to the surrounding moss which it is well known has a highly antiseptic influence.

The body was covered up again; and left in its strange receptacle; but, as may be supposed, the event has created no little talk among the residents on the Spey"

This ghoulish deed did not go unheeded by the local Constabulary who are said to have 'severely reprimanded' the culprits. Following heated discussions between the Captain of the Banffshire Police and local Authorities it was decided that it was time for her soul to be allowed to rest in peace and Babbie McIntosh was granted a Christian, though unmarked, burial in the graveyard at the Kirk o Skirdustan in Aberlour.

And there it is to be hoped that the lass who became a legend through no fault of her own rests in peace to this day.