Many of our reserves have a fascinating element to them that a visitor might not immediately expect; They can tell us a lot about history. RSPB Scotland volunteer Sally Wilkins shares some of the historical highlights at Crannach.

Crannach: A hidden gem

As a member of the RSPB it was intriguing to read the Scottish newsletter that highlighted opportunities to get involved in monitoring historic sites on reserves, while enjoying their natural habitats. Having studied archaeology a number of years ago it struck a chord. Visit RSPB reserves, see some great wildlife, and reconnect with a fascination for archaeology.

Crannach in Aberdeenshire is the closest reserve to where I stay. It’s just east of Ballater by the river Dee, and stretches northwards into the hills. A rich native woodland with open areas of heather moorland, there was plenty to see during an initial visit with RSPB Scotland Site Manager, Stuart Jennings.

The remains of the target features at the rifle range

Initially we focussed on an area by the Tullich Burn. A rifle range had been built here by the local Rifle Volunteer Corps that was established in the Ballater/Braemar area in the 1860s or 1870s.  It’s in amongst the birch and pine trees, all grown since its abandonment. When not used by the Volunteer Corps, and its successor the Territorial Army, the range was used by stalkers from neighbouring estates. It was apparently also active during World War II, when the Officer Training Corps and men of the Home Guard used it. Whether further information can be found is yet to be discovered.

One of the stances,  now covered in moss and enclosed by trees

There are three obvious shooting stances, at 325ft, 600ft and 850ft from the target (c100m, 185m and 260m). Today they are c1.2m high, short stone and earth banks with small flat areas behind, originally with sightlines to the target. The woodland masks the view but it is expected that a narrow line of view will be re-established by judicial felling of a few trees. The stone built target with part of its iron mechanism still survives, as does a nearby store. The bund in front of the target is hardly vegetated – a relic of contamination from the shot and bullets used during the training exercises. This is presumably a fairly unusual effect of human use of the landscape.

The bare earth of the bund that protected the front of the target

Further east, we went up the track towards the Culsten Burn. Masked by the woodland are the remains of quarrying, covering quite an extensive area. Although there is work still to do to fully understand the complex, it is clear that the activity here ranged from small stone extraction points to quarry faces where more sophisticated techniques were surely used. The vast spoil heaps are an indication of just how much granite was taken from here. One such dump lies next to the remains of a small quarryman's shelter, now roofless.

Stuart standing in one of the small quarries with the blasted rock faces to left and right

Granite from Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire contributed greatly to the economy, with the most sought-after stone coming from the great quarry at Rubislaw in Aberdeen, now one of the largest man-made holes in Europe. The granite from quarries like that at Crannach was of a lesser quality. Extraction was by blasting.  By the early 1800s around 10–20lbs (4.5–9kgs) of gunpowder was being used to fill up any natural clefts or fissures in the rock. The resultant blast left large masses of rock separated from the face, with little wastage in the form of rubble. It is entirely possible that this was the method used at Crannach at one time.

Waste from preparing the stones that were transported from the quarry

Much of the granite was shaped into setts, used to pave Aberdeen and, later, London. However, there were several large local projects that would have used the stone from Crannach. Ballater became renowned as a spa town in the 1770s and grew significantly with the arrival of the railway in the 1860s. New town houses, lodgings, shops and hotels were built of granite, as were new bridges over the Dee and a church, all using masonry quarried from the area.

We would love to hear from folk who can help us fill in more details of this story. If you have memories, connections or wisps of story to tell us, do please get in touch by emailing

  • I can't help to fill in any of the blanks, but I wish to say I'm pleased that the RSPB publishes posts of this sort. Thanks. It's always fascinated me when travelling around to try to work out in the field exactly what has happened in a location in the past, and why, and often to follow up, nowadays on the internet, a great source for this type of fascinating investigation.