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Timber Floating Dams
18th - 19th Century
Locations in Abernethy Forest in 1858
'Big Dam', NJ018139 (SE of Rynettin)
Funalt Dam, NJ003192 (West of Dell Lodge)
Duack Dam, NH998165 (Between Loch Garten and Forest Lodge)
Faesheallach Dam, NJ037165 (Loch an Spioraid, South of Lurg)
Cromault Dam, NJ036136 (SE of Loch a' Chnuic)
Garrochir Dam, NJ012111 (Loch a' Garbh-coire, SE of Ryvoan Bothy)
(Grid references relate to the approximate centre of the body of water)
References derived from map in Grant 1994, using Ordnance Survey Landranger map 36.
Other dams were constructed throughout Strathspey forests.
For centuries, floating logs on rivers in spate was the main method of timber extraction. Prior to the construction of dams, floating still depended on the timing and size of the natural spates from high rainfall or snowmelt. Dams and sluices on the river Nethy tributaries allowed the river Nethy's flow to be increased when needed - in fact, even the natural spates could have been increased in volume and duration. This would have improved the quantities, timing and duration of timber floating, allowing timber to be processed faster and more efficiently.
An early dam was built in Abernethy around June 1800, the embankments built up from turf and stone, with timber and iron sluices. The factor, James Grant, wrote to the Laird Sir James Grant of Grant describing a dam which would 'raise a flood on the Nethy as occasion requires' and, furthermore, that 'several other small ones can be made', depending on the success of the first.
Dunlop believed that this was almost certainly a reference to the 'Big Dam' (see above for location). This dam is thought to have been instrumental in the removal of many large Pine trees from upstream near Ryvoan by the years 1812 and 1830 and its remains are still visible.
'It was a busy scene all through the forest, so many rough little horses moving about in every direction, each dragging its load, attended by an active boy as a guide and remover of obstructions... This driving lasted till sufficient timber was collected to render the opening of the sluices profitable... In order to have a run of water at command, the sources of the little rivers were managed artificially to suit floating purposes.
Embankments were raised at the ends of the lakes in the far-away glens, at the point where the different burnies issued from them.
Strong sluice-gates, always kept closed, prevented the escape of any but a small rill of water, so that when a rush was wanted the supply was sure.
'The night before a run, the man in charge of that particular sluice set off up the hill, and reaching the spot long before daylight opened the heavy gates; out rushed the torrent, travelling so quickly as to reach the deposit of timber in time for the meeting of the woodmen...'
('Memoirs of a Highland Lady', Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus in Thompson 1979)
'At the Dell intack, Benjamin Lobban might be seen standing near the sluice and deftly picking out such of the finer logs as he fancied, to be sawn into deals.'
Much of the floating was carried out during the autumn and winter months, presumably when spate conditions were more likely (in an 1805 letter from Alexander Cummings, Woods Manager to James Grant, Factor, the floating season ran from August 26th to May 15th ). Thus, the man tasked with opening the sluice gate would often face horrendous weather, alone and probably in the dark before dawn. Elizabeth Grant notes the death of one such worker, probably due to hypothermia, at a Loch Einich dam in her Memoirs of a Highland Lady (Watson 1992).
During the 18th Century the York Buildings Company brought further innovations, including new handtools ('cleeks'), steerable timber rafts, 'currachs'/coracles and the splitting of rock obstructions using fire and cold water.
Timber floating, however, became redundant with the increased availability of roads, motor vehicles and steam trains (in 1863) - the Industrial Revolution and First World War being major influencing factors.
Explore Abernethy Visitor Centre
Explore Abernethy website (new page)
Dunlop, B. (1994) 'Native Woodland of Badenoch and Strathspey' (SNH research paper)
Forsyth, W (1900) 'In the Shadow of Cairngorm' (Inverness)
Grant, Elspeth (1994) 'Abernethy Forest - Its People and Its past' (Arkleton Trust )
Thompson, F. (1979) 'Portrait of the Spey'