Black Officer – White Death

Avalanches don’t care about one’s knowledge and skills, or one’s position in life, nor do avalanches care about holiday festivals. A death is usually mourned, but the death of the Black Officer in the Scottish Cairngorms in 1800, was thought by some locals as fitting judgment by the Almighty. Is the story folklore or fact?

In October 2003, I enjoyed a brief visit to Coylumbridge – at the edge of the Cairngorms – and heard the story of the Black Officer. But, it wasn’t until a few years later when I came across the tale in Hamish MacInnes’ 2003, The Mammoth Book of Mountain Disasters. (It’s the perfect read for a mountain rescue nerd like me.) MacInnes collected more than 30 mountain rescue epics from around the world, but the tale of the Black Officer was not a chapter in the book, rather MacInnes summarizes the story in his introduction of a Milos Vrba’s narrative of a 1956 avalanche search and rescue – it’s not your typical avalanche rescue operation – in the Low Tatra of Czechoslovakia. (The High Tratra straddle the border between Poland and Slovakia.)

MacInnes tells the legend of Captain John Macpherson who was buried and killed with four other attendants while on a hunting trip on January 11, 1800. Follow up research shows the fateful date was likely January 2, but after 210 years, does nine days really matter?  It seems that MacInnes summarizes the tale in Affleck Gray’s The Legends of the Cairngorms (1987). Since I don’t have a copy of Gray’s book, let me share a bit from MacInnes (with some details added from Alexander Macpherson’s Glimpses of Churches and Social Life…, originally published in 1893, and The Cairngorm Club Journal of 1902. The story was also told in Chamber’s Journal, Volume 85, 1908, which basically repeats the 1893 version.)

After decades of military service, Captain John Macpherson spent his last few years serving as a recruiting officer for the King’s army. Mothers of any sons sent to join the “red coats” had significant disdain for any and all recruiting officers. Macpherson was despised by locals for his recruiting techniques, which some felt were less than ethical, hence his nickname, the “Black Captain.” The black was not for the color of his uniform but for the color of his heart. No matter how unethical were Macpherson’s recruiting methods, with the passage of 200 years the stories have likely been enhanced and even exaggerated. The avalanche, however, was fact.

Back in the late 1700s and early 1800s, recruits were found, or tricked into joining, at recruiting parties at local pubs. The idea was to fill the prospective recruit with fanciful stories of army life and lots of ale and whiskey. Captain Macpherson reputedly used several more devious methods. One was a dance where he invited all the local young men. Knowing the affair would not not be fancy, he set out the army’s red coats for the men to try on. The young men were no doubt reminded how much women adore a man in uniform. The lads happily slipped into uniforms, upon which Macpherson informed them that they had just signed up for military service. If there was disagreement, judgment was passed swiftly when the captain’s soldiers swooped in and ushered off the new recruits to their new profession.

Macpherson was also a deer hunter and frequently ventured into Gaick Forest where he stayed a small hut. The hut, or bothy as locals called it, was a sturdy stone structure topped with a thatched roof that sat in a small valley between two ridges that tower high above. The mountains are “round, steep, and bare.” Today, “forest” would not be a word used to describe the area. Only a few trees remain in the glen.

Just after Christmas, 1799, the 74-year-old Macpherson and four attendants (who likely handled the hunting dogs) settled in to the hut. Two days later a powerful storm swept into the region and brought heavy snows and strong winds. The stormed pounded the mountains for days before blowing itself out on the 4th of January.

When the men failed to return, a local man traveled to the hut but found it gone and the area covered by avalanche debris. The next day all “active” men from the area headed to the hut. With picks and shovels they dug where the hut had stood and recovered four bodies, including Captain Macpherson.

Captain Macpherson, James Grant, John Macpherson (no mention if a relative) were all found in their heather beds. Donald MacGillivray was on the floor. Missing, however, was Duncan MacFarlane. The avalanche blew apart the hut. Stones were found 300 to 400 yards away, and part of the roof had been carried nearly one mile. The forces of the moving snow along with the hut’s stones and timbers bent, broke, and twisted the men’s guns in “every possible shape.” The local’s determined the avalanche crashed down upon the hunters on January 2, and that was not the only avalanche that night. Two other mighty avalanches swept down nearby mountains. Two months later, Duncan MacFarlane’s body was found 300 yards away.

At the time many thought the Gaick Forest was shrouded in suspicion for the supernatural. Centuries earlier a hunter was supposedly ripped apart by witches who had transformed into eagles. The avalanche was attributed to the supernatural, as some thought the captain was in league with the Devil. The captain, a successful farmer had supposedly tricked the Devil regarding his plantings. Others thought the avalanche was caused by the Almighty to punish the captain for his devious recruiting methods. The story turned into a legend that mixed fact with folklore. Today we know the avalanche was simply caused by too much snow that fell and blew onto steep slopes. Captain Macpherson and his friends were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. In 1902 a small monument was erected that marks the spot of the bothy.

— Dale Atkins

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