The History of Ballater
The Aberdeenshire town of Ballater is in effect a Georgian and Victorian new town, built to service visitors to curative wells discovered in the area.
While the town is relatively recent, the district in which it stands has some intriguing historical associations. In the medieval period the lands were gifted to the Knights of St John; but they were generally in the hands of the Farquharson or Gordon families, the latter having a bloody feud with the Forbes family – legend has it that once seven sons of a Gordon owner of nearby Knock Castle (inherited when his brother was murdered by a Forbes rival) were caught and slaughtered by their enemies while digging peat.
The spark for the development of Ballater came when in about 1744 local woman Elspet Michie was miraculously cured of scrofula after bathing in and slaking her thirst with the mineral waters of Pannanich, a few miles east of where Ballater now stands. The fame of these waters spread, and in 1770 local magnate Francis Farquharson decided to establish a settlement that would exploit this resource. He did so on the land around his home, Ballater House, partly because it was his land, but also as a rare flat area in steeply hilly countryside. Francis Farquharson had been in exile in England from 1745 when he was captured taking part in the Jacobite Rebellion , until 1766 – indeed he was at one point condemned to hang, only reprieved on the day assigned for his execution.
For many years the Dee between Ballater on the west and the villages of Pannanich and Tullich (also known for its waters) on the eastern side was crossed by a sometimes perilous ferry. Francis Farquharson organised the building of the first bridge at Ballater in 1783. He was also the moving force behind the construction of an inn at Ballater to accommodate early visitors taking the waters. And he oversaw road improvements that made the area more accessible.
Farquharson’s timber bridge lasted until 1799 when flood waters destroyed it. A granite replacement, designed by Thomas Telford no less, was finished by 1809, but it too was swept away by the Dee in 1829, its replacement once more in timber being ready for use by 1834. Fears for this bridge led to its eventual replacement with a second granite version in 1885 – opened by Queen Victoria on November 6 of that year.
Queen Victoria’s presence at that ceremony emphasises Ballater’s royal connection: in 1848 she and Prince Albert leased, and later bought, Balmoral, which lies just a few miles west of Ballater. This made Ballater more fashionable as a spa resort; and doubtless influenced the arrival of the railway there in 1866, facilitating royal travel as Ballater was the station at which the royal family arrived en route to Balmoral Castle ; and probably too influenced the building of the new bridge. The town still marks its association with that monarch with a week of events in August – Victoria Week . The royal link remains important – various shops in the town have royal warrants proudly displayed; and Victoria Barracks in the town to this day houses the royal guard when members of the royal family are at Balmoral.
In 1864 the town held its first Highland Games , at that time a strange mixture of strength events like tossing the caber and putting the stone; dancing; athletic trials; and more fun tests like sack races.
Sadly the railway station at Ballater closed as part of the Beeching cuts in 1966, but plenty of tourists still use Ballater as a centre for walking and adventure holidays in Deeside.