Last weekend my partner and I went for a drive. Our destination was Plodda Falls, a rather spectacular water feature about 15 miles west of Loch Ness, buried in the very heart of the Scottish highlands. The location was chosen partly because it was my partner’s birthday, and partly because it was on the interminable “bucket list” that all young couples seem to possess, in some form or another.
I had been to the falls once previously, a little over a decade before. I remembered nothing of the journey there, so when my partner – driving – asked if the track she’d just taken was the right one, my only recourse was to my iPhone and Google Maps.
It was the end of October, and the roadway beneath us was thick with gold and yellow and brown leaf mulch, heaped thick enough to disguise what turned out to be dozens and dozens of potholes. Our car, a silver Volve S80 borrowed from my parents, took a beating as it bounced from one gap to another – the only positive was that, though we were on a single track road, we didn’t meet any traffic coming in the opposite direction.
The online map seemed to confirm that yes, we were on the right road to the falls. To our joint surprise, the rugged track lead us to a small hamlet, a dozen or so late nineteenth and early twentieth century houses straddling the road beyond a boulder upon which had been engraved the word “Tomich.” The only sign of life were two particularly large and brute-looking bulls in one of the neighbouring fields, who raised their heads up to watch us imperiously as we drove by.
I rechecked the map. Even in the highlands, badly-maintained single-track lanes usually only lead to a single farmstead, not a village, no matter how small. But yes, the slowly pulsing blue dot on my screen reassured me. This was the way to Plodda Falls.
‘Did you see the dog?’ my partner asked. I looked up in time to catch a glimpse of what she meant. Not a living dog, but a statue, standing tall at the side of the road. I saw it only for a second, and didn’t have time to ponder it, for I was still struggling to reconcile the route chosen for us with the one I’d anticipated.
On the track led us, Tomich’s small cluster of silent dwellings giving way once more to fallow fields forests and, eventually, something else. Looming at us at the end of the track, flanked left and right by orange-dappled trees, was a ruin. It had quite clearly once been a grand house of some sort or other – its walls were stout stone, its windows tall and regular. Pillars flanked its front entrance, and two blocks of chimneys still stood overlooking the remnants of its north face. It was, however, beyond repair. Its roof and many of its interior walls were gone, rendering those dozens of windows gaunt and cyclopean as they glared down upon our approach.
Needless to say, at this point I re-checked Google Maps. It wouldn’t have been the first time I’m taken us on a wrong turn. My defence was ready-made, however, for there was the road, and the blue line reassuring us that we were on the right route. I looked back up. The track lead us to the ruin, or more specifically to a great log that had been felled across it. There was no road beyond it, not even a path or muddy tyre markings in the soil. Only tree-dotted grassland.
Feeling dismayed and, perhaps, a little apprehensive, we parked up and climbed out to catch our bearings. After a quick tyre check we approached the dilapidated house – how could we not? There it stood, silent in the autumnal damp, watching over this lonely track to nowhere.
As I approached I looked around, and was struck by further realisation. I had thought the land around the house consisted merely of overgrown fields and scattered woodland, but I now realised my mistake. The gentle undulation of the ground, the semi-regular spacing of large, individual maples and oaks – these were not abandoned farmer’s acers. We were standing in the middle of a country estate. Yes, it was overgrown with weeds, and the trees and hedges stood untended, but its shape was now obvious to me. The existence of the hamlet, Tomich, now also made sense. It was not some strangely-placed little village, but rather the small conglomeration of dwellings that so often attached themselves to grand country homes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, acting as stables and homes for the staff and servants who ran the estate.
We had, unwittingly, driven into a grand domain, now long abandoned. And there at the heart of it stood the manse.
Up close I could discern more of its ruination. Many of the foundations stood exposed, like the roots of craggy old teeth in gums that had rotted away. The inside had been almost entirely reclaimed by nature, weeds and short, hardy bushes covering what little remained. How grand had that interior once been? Drawing rooms, a dining hall, lounges, grand bedrooms, all managed by an attentive staff. What had brought about this monstrous decay? Did any now live who remembered this place before it was given over as a home for roosting crows and burrowing rabbits? And why on Earth had my map lead us right to the crumbling, open arch of its empty front door?
It was not a question we took time to ponder. We withdrew to our car, turned it around, and rode the rugged track back past Tomich and out of the estate.
We found Plodda and, in truth, enjoyed a splendid day at the falls. Only on our return did I pause to consider our strange discovery. The whole encounter had a surreal, almost dream-like quality to it. I was half afraid that if I started to dig for information, I’d find that no such house or hamlet had ever stood at the spot where we encountered them.
Yet dig I did [Nb; this is the part where, having initially unearthed and triggered the haunting, the unwitting protagonists does their research and discovers something horrifying that explains the nature of the horror]. A hunt on Google Maps unearthed both Tomich and the bleak mansion it served. The place’s name, apparently, was Guisachan Estate. It didn’t take long to find old photos of the place in its prime, and I couldn’t help but succumb to the disturbing sensation that follows when viewing black-and-white images of places and people that are all long dead and ruined. The headline that accompanied the first picture I pulled up wasn’t exactly reassuring either.
At this point I must come straight with you, dear reader – there is no particular haunting or horror to attend the ending of this tale, though I’m glad to say there is a twist in it. According to my research, Guisachan was built in the mid nineteenth century by Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks, 1st Baron Tweedmouth, a Scottish businessman and Liberal MP. It was designed as a country retreat, but its construction included the eviction of, probably, over 200 local farmers (the “dark side” mentioned in the article). At some point in the twentieth century it was abandoned and fell into dilapidation, and there it might have stayed, a forgotten relic of the Victorian aristocracy, left to becoming just a few mounds of earth and broken stone in the centuries to come. Yet that was not to be, for the place and its founder still have one great claim to fame – and here comes the twist. It was Majoribanks who first bred Golden Retrievers.
It was indeed a statue of the Golden Retriever that my partner had spotted on the path into the estate. Guisachan is rightfully considered the home of one of the most beloved of all dog breeds, and every year the decrepit ruins play host to a convention that sees hundreds of the lovable animals congregate with their owners. Though ruined, the estate is watched over by the Friends of Guisachan, a large club “dedicated to the ancestral home of the Golden Retriever.”
It was certainly not the ending that I expected but, given the breed is probably our favourite, it was a welcome one all the same.
My only remaining advice would be, if you ever visit Plodda Falls, be wary of Google Maps.