Archaeology and History
Aigas and the Highlands are a place redolent with history. The ancient hills, the peaty waters, the quiet straths and Highland society have all been shaped by a long and often dramatic physical and cultural past. This page is a potted history of this patch of land - the place we call Aigas.
Scotland was once connected to North America as part of the huge continent of Laurentia. 430 million years ago a massive collision of continents joined the present Scotland to England at such force that mountains were thrust upwards to the height of the Himalayas. Ever since, these mountains have been continually eroded leaving only the bare roots – the Moine schists upon which Aigas stands.
Successive periods of glaciation covered Aigas in ice over a mile thick; mauling and scouring the land into the distinctive highland landscape of lofty peaks intersected by wide flat straths we see today.
As the ice retreated, plants and animals moved northwards to colonise this new land of opportunity. When people arrived 8000 years ago, they found a land covered in forest; home to wolves and bears, deer and wild boar, while the rivers boasted beavers and were bursting with salmon. These hunter-gatherers kept to the coast, mainly eating fish and leaving little behind but midden heaps. As the climate warmed, the people began to supplement their diet by farming, necessitating a more sedentary lifestyle. Conditions were so favourable that they were able to dedicate time and resources to the building of cairns and tombs, with many examples in our local area.
Bronze for Axes
4000 years ago, bronze came to the highlands. Metal working facilitated farming and deforestation, allowing people to use wood in the construction of round houses, the remnants of which are visible as hut circles on our moorland. During this time, the climate was getting cooler and wetter, leading to the development of bogs and conflict over land viable for agriculture. With the development of iron working from 500BC to 500AD, farming and hunting were more efficient, leading to an increase in population but also an increase in land disputes. Communities became more warlike, building defensible structures, forging weapons and becoming hostile to outsiders. The remains of an Iron Age fort can be found on the Aigas estate at a superb lookout over the strath. This would have been a place of retreat in case of invasion for the local people.
Romans, Norsemen, Gaels, Picts and the Scots
The Roman occupation of Britain was little felt in the Highlands, as their advancing army reached Inverness but then had to retreat almost immediately to deal with unrest elsewhere in the empire and never returned. At this time Aigas would have been occupied by a people known as the Picts, known for leaving magnificent carvings on standing stones. In the 6th Century, Christianity swept through the Highlands and within 100 years all of Scotland had been unified religiously if not politically.
Norse invaders arrived in the 8th Century, taking a big chunk of land; the Northern and Western Isles, Caithness and Sutherland all fell to the Vikings before they were halted by the joined forces of the Scots and Picts, who were soon united to form the Kingdom of Alba. Alba spread over the next two centuries, becoming Scotland under the rule of Duncan I in 1034. A succession of kings of Pictish/Gaelic descent followed until 1291 when there were no clear claimants to the throne and Edward I of England seized the opportunity to control Scotland through John Bailliol. The Wars of Independence were to follow, resulting in almost continual conflict between England and Scotland.
The Wars of Independence
The Wars of Independence also developed the culture of Highland clans. Noblemen (often Norman knights) gained land and power by gathering their families and dependants into armies supporting Robert the Bruce. Some of these assets were then passed on to their kin and favoured allies in return for loyalty and military backing. The clans became a law unto themselves, often not recognising the crown as overlord, until after the thrones of England and Scotland were united in 1603 when the Statutes of Iona were signed, severely restricting the power of the clan chief. The traditional culture of the clans was slowly being eroded away.
Jacobites and the "Bonnie" Prince
The final straw for the clans came with the deposition of the catholic King James in favour of the protestant Hanoverian line. Despite a number of failed uprisings, the charismatic Bonnie Prince Charlie, grandson of the deposed King James, succeeded in rousing the martial might of the clans to fight for his father’s cause in the infamous Battle of Culloden. The fight was lost; primarily due to treachery, the Prince’s inflated pride and sheer bad luck. The Highlanders fled, returning to a land never to be the same again. The backwash from the battle was a wave of tyranny that swept across the Highlands, led by the King’s son the Duke of Cumberland. All clans that had supported the Stewarts were sacked – houses burned, women and children murdered and lands forfeited in a brutal attempt to suppress the clan spirit and stamp out the possibility of another uprising.
Aigas - Fraser Territory
The area around Aigas was held by Clan Fraser, whose wily chief sent men to fight for both sides of the dispute. A tacksman’s house which stood on the site of the current house was burned down to the ground in 1746 and all the inhabitants were murdered by the government troops. About 15 years later, the clan chiefs were given back their land in return for loyalty to the Hanoverian crown and a new Fraser tacksman built a house on the Aigas tack, parts of which are still standing today.
In 1877, the land was sold to a wealthy family of merchant bankers from Glasgow, the Gordon-Oswalds. It was the fashion at this time to own a highland sporting estate, copying the latest pursuits of Queen Victoria who had purchased Balmoral Castle in Deeside. A large new structure was built around the original Georgian house imitating the baronial style of Balmoral, to be used as a summer house where they could come to shoot grouse on the estate in August and September.
20th Century Decline & Revival
On the death of Mrs Gordon-Oswald, the house was sold to the council in 1949 and run as an old people’s home. There was little maintenance of the house, and it was abandoned in 1972 to the wind and weather. John Lister-Kaye, a naturalist and author who had moved to Scotland to work with Gavin Maxwell in 1969, bought the remnants of the estate in 1976 and rescued it by creating a home and the first field studies centre for the Highlands. It was opened by Sir Frank Fraser Darling, Scotland's most celebrated ecologist. Since then it has become Scotland's premier field centre, winning international awards for environmental education and hosting travel study groups from all over the world.
In 1988 Sir John and Lady Lister-Kaye built the west wing, extending the Georgian 1760 house for their growing family. It is their permanent residence today.