The Hunt for Balnamoon’s Cave

Glen Mark

Balnamoon’s Cave guards its secrets well. Lurking in the upper reaches of Glen Mark, countless visitors to this wild and lonely valley have sought out its sanctuary and seclusion. Most have returned disappointed, unable to locate the clandestine spot amid the craggy cliffs and rock-strewn slopes. And therein lies its beauty for the concealed location really was a matter of life or death for a rebel laird fleeing the blood-soaked battlefields of Culloden.

On April 16, 1746, the Royal army, led by the Duke of Cumberland, famously crushed the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden. Defeat ended the rebellious uprising and leading Jacobites who survived the carnage fled. With vengeful English government troops hot on their heels, some, like their leader Bonnie Prince Charlie, set sail for Europe while others were dispersed to the American colonies. There were those, however, who stayed loyal to their roots and went to ground in Scotland. Among them was James Carnegy, the 6th Earl of Balnamoon.

With a mansion and lands at Balnamoon and Findowrie, to the north of Brechin, Carnegy surreptitiously crept home from Culloden. With a price on his head he could not risk returning to his family seat, so instead he ventured into Glen Esk, a long and winding valley that weaves its way from Brechin deep into the Angus hills. There he found sanctuary at Invermark Castle, a solid stone tower built in 1526 to guard the pass from Glen Esk to Deeside.

The arrow marks the location of the cave

With Red Coats hunting high and low for him, Invermark offered only temporary reprieve. Carnegy needed a more secure bolthole; a place where he could lie low and no one would ever find him. Searching the remote upper reaches of Glen Mark he discovered his safe haven in the form of a tiny cave.

Lying part way up a slope littered with rocks and boulders, Carnegy set about making the hideaway habitable. He built up the front using rough stone and moss, leaving the narrowest of entrances. Today it is all but impossible to spot.

During his time on the run, the fugitive split his time between the cave and Invermark Castle. Local people loyal to him brought food and warned him when Red Coats were in the area. Despite the offer of a sizeable reward for information leading to his capture, they never betrayed him.

However, it was only a matter of time before he was cornered. A local Presbyterian minister heard word of his presence in Glen Mark and passed the information on to the government. The Argyll Highlanders were sent in to rout him out and, after a year hiding out, Carnegy was finally captured and taken to London for trial.

Climbing towards the cave entrance

When he married in 1745 he had added his wife’s surname and territorial designation of Arbuthnott of Findowrie to his own name, becoming James Carnegy-Arbuthnott. This led to confusion over his identity and the trial came to a swift halt. Carnegy was pardoned and released in 1748. After many months on the run he was able to return to Balnamoon and Findowrie, a free man. Carnegy was one of the fortunate ones; of the many Jacobite prisoners tried at Berwick, York and London at least 80 were executed.

It is not known whether or not he ever returned to his cave. However, it remains to this day as a reminder of the extraordinary efforts one man took to evade his bloodthirsty pursuers. Just how difficult it is to locate soon becomes clear to anyone attempting to search it out.

To reach Balnamoon’s Cave one must set off on foot from the end of the public road through Glen Esk. Beyond Lochlee Parish Church, a track strikes north, passing House of Mark. Signed for Ballater, Queen’s Well and Mount Keen, the route through Glen Mark follows the old Mounth Road, an ancient right of way linking Glen Esk with Deeside. It was well used by shepherds, cattle drovers and traders and was a quick way in and out for the Caterans, marauding cattle thieves who plundered farms in the Highlands from the Middle Ages through to the 17th century.

The cave's narrow entrance

The Mounth Road is just one of a number of old highways that once crossed the hills between Deeside and Angus and Queen Victoria regularly traversed them by pony during stays at Balmoral Castle. On September 20, 1861, she and her husband were heading for Fettercairn when they stopped for refreshment at White Well in Glen Mark.

The main track veers away from the well but a grassy path, branching right, leads to it. Beneath stone arches, water gurgles up into a bowl that carries the inscription: ‘Rest traveller, on this lonely green, and drink and pray for Scotland’s Queen.’

Later in the same year, Prince Albert died but Queen Victoria visited Glen Mark again in 1865 with her daughter Princess Helena. They lunched at Glenmark House, an isolated cottage just north of the well, before taking the water.

At Queen’s Well, walkers seeking out Balnamoon’s Cave branch west, leaving the Mounth Road to head into the wilder recesses of the glen. A track follows the Water of Mark upstream and in due course it must be crossed without the aid of a bridge. With Red Coats advancing it is not difficult to imagine Carnegy bounding through the freezing cold water in his kilt, his life dependent on him reaching the safety of his cave before he is spotted.

Higher up the glen, the path curves left to enter a gorge, flanked on both sides by brooding crags and steep slopes cascading with jagged stone. The river tumbles over great slabs of rock, pounding through deep chasms. Balnamoon’s Cave is now close at hand, although it is not easy to identify in the chaotic landscape, despite being marked on the Ordnance Survey map for the area.

Inside Balnamoon's Cave

Above the first waterfall encountered, the path emerges from heather moor on to a flat plain of grass, located below a second, higher waterfall. Once on the grass, cave hunters must bear left and head for a huge boulder topped with a crown of heather. One must bear right of this rock and continue straight on to reach the start of a narrow path, to the right of another large rock.

From the grassy ground, the little path rises through heather and blaeberry bushes, passing great slabs of rock on the right to reach the cave entrance, a slender slit barely discernable from the boulders that surround it on all sides.

The claustrophobic hollow within is a dark dank and soulless place, cold and infested with cobwebs. Too low to stand up in, there is space enough for a man to sleep on the rough floor of earth and stone. But desperate times called for desperate measures and, while Carnegy doubtless spent some uncomfortably restless nights in this murky cavern, at least he was safe.

The entrance offers a fine view over the valley below and approaching Red Coats would be easy to spot. However, had they rumbled his position, escape would have been all but impossible. The cave’s strength lies in its complete camouflage, blending perfectly into the landscape. Had it not been for the loose tongue of the local minister, who knows how long Carnegy, who died peacefully in 1791, may have been able to remain here undetected, guarded by his secret cave.

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