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The Miracle Stone of the Spey

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Louise Yeoman | 09:38 UK time, Friday, 14 September 2012

There's a tradition in the programme Past Lives of letting a listener throw a dart at a map of Scotland and then making a programme where we look for history around the spot where the dart comes down. Imagine our surprise in this series when listener Stuart Gibbs threw a dart which severed the River Spey just above Boat of Garten near the site of the Miracle Stone of the Spey! So our last programme in the series will be set in the area around Boat of Garten and Grantown and we'll be exploring the mystery of the Miracle Stone - BBC Radio Scotland, September 17th, 1405

The Stone that set the Cat among the Pigeons - 'The Miracle Stone of the Spey'

It's the sort of romantic legend that people love to hear - a dying medieval Highland Lady longs to be buried beside her much-loved husband, but between Lord and Lady rages the River Spey in flood. Her friends told her it was impossible, but she replied ' Go you to the water-side where I tell you and a passage will be speedily effected.' When the funeral arrived at the spot near the medieval motte of Tom Pitlac, so the legend says, 'the waters instantly divided and the procession walked over on dry ground!' There's even a funny little detail that as the mourners walked across they saw 'an immense shoal of fish leaping and dancing in the dry bed of the stream', and were tempted to try and capture some of the salmon 'but the angry waters refused to countenance the unmerciful onslaught, and returned once more to their channel.'

That's the way the story was reported in 1865 when the controversial 'Miracle Stone' of the Spey was set up to mark the legendary crossing. It was the brainchild of a local holy man reputed to have the second sight, 92 year old William Grant of Slochd. Grant had a vision of the crossing and on his deathbed he requested the stone to be set up with an inscription in English and Gaelic to mark this "signal manifestation of the Divine Power in dividing this water". However the five foot tall standing stone wasn't just marking a romantic legend, it was also a very pointed insult to the local Free Church. Grant was not just some ordinary pious farmer - he was one of 'The Men': the Gaelic-speaking Calvinist 'saints' renowned not just for praying but, it was said, for getting answers to their prayers. They could be spotted at any Gaelic prayer gathering by their distinctive outfit - a long blue cloak with a spotted handkerchief bound round the head and their hair worn unusually long. And in the parish of Duthil "The Men' had taken on the minister. The Men were accustomed to trying clergy and finding them wanting - after all 'college learning' wasn't going to produce a miracle like parting the Spey...

The view from the medieval castle mound

The view from the medieval castle mound

Dig a little deeper into local folklore and you realise that the subject of the legend wasn't really a medieval lady. She was known locally as 'Holy Mary of Luirg' but the details from the story place her closer to the 17th century and hint that she was one of those female Protestant saints cut from the same cloth as 'the Men': 'an old grannie, a mother, a great princess in Israel who lived in our modern Nazareth, the braes of Abernethy near Terdow, now inhabited only by the fox the owl and the adder... would you really believe that the very dust of a woman who lived at the bottom of the Cairngorm hills - a place famous for nothing except for cairngorm stones, poaching and smuggled whisky against the laws of the kingdom would be more countenanced than the greatest and best men who became martyrs of Christ throughout the Alpine nations and all the other kingdoms of Europe? fumed one of the Free church opponents of the stone before damning her as 'a favourite of the Men'.

And that's why the stone was so offensive - it was a reminder to the ministers that nobody believed they could produce miracles and visions, but they believed it of the Men and that un-named woman. But the Free Kirk weren't going to take this lying down. The stone was ridiculed in the newspapers from John O'Groats to London. It was preached against from the pulpit. And on the night of 19th February 1867 a Free Church posse crept out to smash the stone and throw it into the waters of the River Spey. To add insult to injury, the triumphant party went onto take trophies.

Mark Stephen

Mark Stephen

"One clever young clergyman a probationer from the north went to the place. he had a long wooden rod and an iron crook upon it. He stripped himself of his clothes went into the river to the very shoulders and managed to rake out so many bits of the famous stone. upon his way back north he called at my house and left a good bit of the stone with me, as a reward for my trouble about it. In Ross-shire I called at a clergyman's house. When going in at the door, he pointed out to me a bit of blue flag stone lying upon the right side of the door "Cameron" says he, "do you know what kind of stone it's this?" I replied that I could not say. " I wonder at that very much. "That is" says he "a bit of the great and famous stone out the Spey." The man that dragged so many bits of the Stone out of the Spey said that over the north he would get £5 for any bit of it, provided that some of the "cut letters" upon it could be seen. The bit I saw at the door had this, the cut letters.

But can anything be found of the stone now? By chance its stump and site were documented by the surveyor on the 1st edition of the OS 6-inch map at NH 94965 19674, so we know where it was, but how far has it fallen victim to souvenir hunting? How badly was it smashed up? In the mid 1960s local historian George Dixon decided to find out. Armed with an early drawing of the stone, he found the location and clambered into the waters - and there was the main body of the stone, lying at an angle in the bed of the Spey, near the medieval motte and bailey castle of Tom Pitlac. When George waded in to touch the stone, he was able to run his hand along and feel the lettering. To his surprise it was mostly intact even after a hundred years. The Free Kirk may have smashed the stone - but much of the monument is still there and in parts may even still be legible. To survive such abuse, perhaps there's a touch of the miraculous about it after all...

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