Atholl, Scotland's Heartland
© by James Irvine Robertson
Some appreciate Highland Perthshire as no more than one of the most beautiful parts of Scotland. But what makes a place special is bound up with many things. Of course scenery and the quality of the environment are a large part of it but the fourth dimension - time - has transformed the bare hills. Humanity was the instrument of time and it is our predecessors who named the landmarks and shaped the countryside. To understand this magnificent landscape, one must appreciate something of its legends and history, often inextricably interlinked, as well as the way of life of its people. By knowing this one’s appreciation of its beauty is enhanced.
350 MILLION YEARS ago Scotland gave a great shake and developed a fault which runs by Dumbarton, Callander, and Dunkeld before curving north. South and east of this boundary are the Lowlands of Scotland; to the north and west lie the Highlands. For centuries this line represented the greatest cultural boundary in Europe. South of the river Forth at the dawn of history, the people were of Germanic stock, originally subjects of the kingdom of Northumbria which stretched down to the Humber. In the south west of Scotland they were British, in the far north and far west from Scandinavia but in the Highlands they were Picts and Scots who had come from Ireland.
These two last peoples were united in 848 by Kenneth McAlpine to create the nucleus of modern Scotland but the centre of power soon slipped south. For centuries afterwards the Highlands lay in a time warp, preserving the last tribal society in Europe. The people of Lowland Scotland had much in common with the English but by the sixteenth century Highlanders spoke a different language from the rest of Great Britain; they wore different clothes, had a different culture and customs, and habitually carried weapons. A mutual contempt was almost all these two societies had in common.
At the handful of passes into the rampart of frowning mountains, settlements grew where these two peoples could trade. Dunkeld was one of the most important of these interfaces and the straths to its north were amongst the richest and most fertile in the Highlands. Up until the beginning of the nineteenth century this was an unknown country to the sassenach - the southern Scot - peopled by strange and savage barbarians. Only the most intrepid traveller dared cross the Tay into the district of Atholl and endure the primitive conditions, the ‘horrid’ frowning hills, the bare moors, and the outlandish inhabitants.
Now the entry to the Highlands is scarcely noticeable. No narrow pass cuts through the hills. You can waft through Atholl in twenty minutes, sweeping down from Birnam Hill and across the Tay where the broad flood plain of the river opens out, then north, up the great strath before climbing up to the winter-blizzard swept pass of Drumochter. Through the window of car, coach, or train, you will observe the tree-covered slopes, Pitlochry, Blair Atholl, the distant hill tops, and the rivers which originally carved out these valleys leaving their jagged edges to be ground smooth by the glaciers.
Travelling thus is almost virtual reality. You can see the land as you pass but you cannot feel its geography. The modern road runs on embankment above the flood-prone haughland, marches on stilts across hillsides, and spans gorges that generations died to defend. You cannot feel the wind which brushes over the high tops, perhaps picking up the chill of the late season snow. You miss the midge which can make memorable a dull late-summer evening. You may note an osprey over the river, and the magnificence of the Atholl Palace Hotel which you think Blair Castle until you pass the real thing a few miles further on, but you’ll never know of the majesty of the great trees, the tumbling burns, the tranquil lochs and mountain summits from where Scotland lies at your feet, or the deer, the grouse, pine martins and the capercaillie that still lurk in the ancient pine woods. Nor will you understand the way each corner of this country was shaped by the hand of man.
Only the structure of the landscape remains as nature intended. When the glaciers receded, trees clothed the hillsides and the flat lands were marsh. Mankind arrived, creeping up the Tay. But the plain remained a swamp eventually threaded by a track that became a great highway into the Highlands. The thousands of men-at-arms and armoured knights of Edward I’s army marched through to ravage the country after the execution of William Wallace. Edward III’s soldiers passed this way on their way to Blair Castle. Four centuries later, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Highlanders came south on their triumphal march to Edinburgh.
To appreciate Atholl you need to get out of your car, not in a lay-by where you are buffeted by slipstreams, but somewhere - and there are plenty of such places - where you can find solitude. The ghosts of the past seem just on the edge of perception. The tree-clad hummock in an adjacent field may be an ancient tomb, a fairy’s palace, a giant’s castle, or an execution mound. The Scots pines on its summit may have been left because the plough could not touch them, or planted to mark the spot as one where drovers could overnight their cattle on the way to the markets of the south. The anonymous boulder in a corner of a meadow may have been known to generations as the point where a MacGregor had his throat slit, or where a lass should go at dawn on midsummer day to sip the dew to ensure her fertility. This country has the harsh skeleton that nature decreed, but the forests and the moors are fashioned by mankind and enriched by layer upon layer of human experience, now mostly forgotten.
River names are the most ancient in the landscape and the explorers who named Scotland’s greatest river ‘smooth and quiet’ water were the same folk who first met the Taw in north Devon, the Tavy in Cornwall, the Tyne, and even the Tiber. The early inhabitants began to clear the forests and left signs of their passing in dozens of enigmatically cup-marked boulders, in great stone circles, in tumuli where they buried their dead.
But those who named the river Tay are unknown. Their story can never be told, nor that of the hundreds of generations who followed them and called this land their own. Not until the Picts, some two millennia ago, do we have a name for the people who lived here and what follows is mainly an account of the Gaels who supplanted them. They have gone, too, but their genes live on in the modern resident of Highland Perthshire, as do those of the Picts, and their ancient predecessors. The culture and even the language may be changed by successful invaders but the human stock absorbed them and remained much the same.
Kenneth McAlpine made his capital at Dunkeld 1,150 years ago. By then the city already had a history going back three hundred years. When St Augustine landed in Kent to bring Christianity to southern England, St Columba and his missionaries had already converted the Picts and a monastery nestled on the bank of the Tay. The Viking raids down the west coast destroyed the religious settlement at Iona. Half the monks sought refuge in Ireland, the others came to Dunkeld bearing the remains of their founder.
Once more the saint’s bones were laid to rest but, in the chaos of successive raids by the Norsemen, their location was forgotten. Twice the early abbey was burned and it was damaged several times in later tumults but the current roofless state of much of the building owes itself to a couple of local lairds and their enthusiasm for the destruction and theft of Papist establishments during the Reformation.
By then, the 16th century, the variation on the clan system as practised in Atholl was at its peak. This was the country of the Stewarts, Clans Menzies and Donnachaidh. The last of these, the Robertsons, were the earliest recognisable clan between Dunkeld and Dalnacardoch. Their chief can trace his line from the Picts, the old Celtic kings and earls of Atholl, and the kindred of St Columba. In the pleasant phrase to show ancient associations with the district, they were said to be the first to ‘make smoke’ in these straths. The first seat of the chief was at Struan on a conveniently defensible mound above the river Garry, some twenty miles north of Dunkeld.
Their power began to wane when the line of the old earls died out and the title was won by Robert, High Steward of Scotland. He married a daughter of Robert Bruce and came to the throne as Robert II. The Stewarts, like the Menzieses, came from France, arriving into Scotland in 1136 in the train of King David and his queen, Margaret. Strathtay, Strathtummel and Strathgarry were for centuries dominated by Stewart lairds.
The Stewart line of earls died out in its turn, and the last heiress was won by the Murray earls of Tullibardine. As earls, marquises, and dukes of Atholl, they ruled Atholl until modern times but, although they held feudal superiority over this country, clan and kin loyalties built up over centuries sometimes led the people into conflict with their master. It provided a rich brew to be distilled into history.
STRUCTURE OF SOCIETY
As you advance north across the Tay at Dunkeld, you are entering Atholl. The name, originally Athflota, means New Ireland and appears in the Annal of Ulster, indicating that the Gaels or their language had arrived in the Pictish heartland by 739. Atholl became a Celtic earldom - which included much of the land now called Breadalbane - and later a Regality within which the holder of the title wielded absolute rule. The forces of the state could do little to curb the turbulent clans, particularly during the long minorities of the Stewart kings when central authority was weak. Control was devolved to the great Highland magnates. If one of these became too strong for the royal peace of mind, the monarch would encourage another to wage war upon his overmighty neighbour. This way the king kept a balance of power.
One of these great men of the nation was the head of the family of Atholl. He was Lord Lieutenant and Sheriff Principal of Perthshire and Lord of the Regalities of Atholl and Dunkeld. From Dunkeld, where he administered his domain and had his southerly seat, up the straths of the Tay, the Tummel, and the Garry, he had power of life and death over everyone. In his name did his lairds sit on juries in his courts and sentence malefactors to his prison at Logierait or to be beheaded or hanged upon the execution mounds.
Great men held their land by charter from the king. They, in turn, granted heritable estates to their chieftains or lairds who, in Atholl, numbered about eighty. The king might command the earl to raise an army. The earl then instructed each of his lairds to muster the fencible men - those between sixteen and sixty capable of bearing arms - on his estate. Each of these might hold half a dozen little settlements whose inhabitants, like their lairds, had interbred for generations. These tenants and subtenants were the pawns in the politics and feuds of the magnates and it has to be said they often showed considerable enthusiasm for their duty. They may have lived and farmed the same patch of land for centuries but they had no security of tenure. Their lives were at the whim of the earl, and their livelihoods at the whim of their lairds.
The system could have led to tyranny, but it was tempered by kinship. Ask in Gaelic from where a man comes and the question literally translates as from whom does he come. Genealogy was the corner stone of the culture, fitting each person into the community. The incoming henchmen of the kings and of the Stewart earls of Atholl were given estates populated by the ancient inhabitants of the district. These lairds soon went native and for centuries intermarried with the locals. Just as the younger kinsfolk of the king might become lairds, so the younger offspring of the lairds might marry tenants, and their younger children could wed the most humble on the estate. Thus each Athollman and woman could trace their ancestry into the intertwined kinship network of the Stewart, Robertson, Menzies and Fergusson lairds which connected to the royal line. Everyone knew they were aristocrats, descended from princes, and they looked upon Lowlanders as an ill bred rabble.
WAY OF LIFE
For most people these straths were their only experience of the world. We enrich our own knowledge and understanding through travel and the media, but they were largely confined to the locality, illiterate and could only know what they saw for themselves or heard from the mouths of others. And the tales were rich and tall. 300 years ago the hillsides were dotted with little townships huddled round a good spring or well. Peat smoke leaked through the crude thatch of the tiny stone cottages. The land around them was striped - curved strips of barley adjacent to oats, barley or flax demarcated by a weedy furrow. Higher up the slopes were chequered by meadows of grass in various shades of green and rankness. A wall of turf or stone ran along the flanks of the hills, and above this, the head dyke, lay the moors. There were patches of trees but the strongest impression on the traveller would have been human activity for the land carried a much greater population than today. The little hamlets were intersected by a network of paths; dozens of ferries plied across the rivers and, higher up, the land swarmed with cattle, ponies, sheep and goats.
Into one of the cottages of a winter’s night would crowd the inhabitants of the surrounding township. In the middle of the floor would be the peat fire. At the far end would be the cow and the sheep, tethered in their stalls, issuing a medley of contented sighs and belches. The beasts added a cosy background warmth and enriched the tang of peat-reek with the comforting stench of dung.
A cosy fug would build against the snows outside and the whisky jug would be passed round whilst men made baskets and womens’ fingers would be busy with whorl and spindle. If they were lucky someone would pull a harp or a fiddle from beneath his plaid and a singer would strike up in accompaniment. Often the ceilidh would be just gossip, a bit of company on a cold night - babies bundled up in their mother’s bosom and the children piled up on a couch of deep heather. Always there would be tales of Fingal and the other legendary ancestors who first peopled the land, and the stories of clan raids, the ferry disasters, the doings of the lairds, and how each round the hearth was a cousin to some degree to everyone else.
Highlanders farmed their township’s lands in common. They ploughed the fields round their little hamlets and planted their oats and bere, a variety of barley. When these began to sprout the great migration up to the shielings took place. For century after century, men, women, and children drove the stock up to the mountain pastures. The ramshackle huts of the summer towns high in the hill corries were rebuilt and the beasts took advantage of the flush of seasonal grass. Below in the straths the precious crops were thus left to grow free from marauding cattle and sheep. In the corries the dung of generations of beasts built up the fertility and even today the old shieling pastures stand out as much for the vivid green of growth in these high remote places as in the humps and hummocks marking the foundations of the old summer homes.
The long sunlit days at the shielings were the make weight for the dark winters. Sweethearts had privacy in the accommodating depths of the heather. Children tickled trout from the mountain burns and guarded the livestock against foxes and eagles, or helped their mothers make cheese and butter from the abundant milk to pay their rents, or spun flax and fleece. Taught by their fathers, boys learned the use of broadsword, targe and dirk for a man must be vigilant to protect his wealth which was his livestock, particularly his cattle. Wild marauders might avoid the sentinels of Clan Donnachaidh in Rannoch or the MacGregors of Glen Lyon and swoop down to raid Atholl. Sometimes those sentinels might try to rustle the odd cow from a neighbouring estate for themselves.
The high moorland was muir fowl - grouse - and deer country. The moors also held peat, a critically important resource. This was the fuel of the Highlands since coal was too expensive to transport from the Lowlands and the few patches of woodland too valuable to be squandered. Amongst a family’s most precious possessions were the timber crucks which supported the turf and heather roof of the cottage. When the thatch became impregnated with soot, it would be dismantled and spread across the fields for manure, but the roof trees were used again and again.
Peat cooked the oatmeal and heated the cottages. Taking weeks to cut in early summer, it was stacked to dry until collected in the autumn. If the summer was wet, it might never dry out and people faced a cold and hungry winter - unless the menfolk raided some neighbouring glen more fortunate than their own. Imagine one of those winter weeks with sixteen hours of darkness each day and endless curtains of chilled rain sweeping across the hills. Imagine, lit by the single wick of an oil crusie lamp, a family of a dozen trying to keep out the wet and the cold, trying fill the chinks to keep out the icy draughts, trying to dry clothes each evening, keep warm, and cook round the single, smoky fire. In such conditions diseases like tuberculosis were easily spread and all too often a small child would crawl or fall into the glowing peat and be seriously injured or killed. The amount of fuel required for a season would not be far short of the size of the cottage it serviced. Most of Highland Perthshire was rich in peat but in some areas it was running short and only the emptying of the glens prevented a serious crisis.
In the depths of the peat bogs lay the remains of the prehistoric Caledonian forest. Only the richest of lairds could afford tallow or beeswax candles but splinters from these ancient pine stumps were packed with resin and provided fir candles, the cheapest form of lighting. Their drawback was the speed with which they burned and, on ceilidh night, a child or an old granny would be employed full time to keep them alight.
In summer the high country teemed with the wealth of Atholl - the hordes of scrubby cattle. Hay was a rare extravagance and in winter the beasts often survived in their owners’ cottages on what wisps of dead vegetation the women could rescue from the winter landscape. Routinely the animals would be tapped for their blood to add protein to the diet and by spring would be so weak they must be carried outside on hurdles to rebuild their strength on the first grass. Early in the year drovers would come round the townships, pledging to return in the autumn to take the shieling-fattened cattle to the great autumn markets at Crieff or Falkirk when up to fifty thousand beasts from all over the Highlands were sold.
All, save the laird, must grow his own food. It took two bolls of oatmeal to sustain a man’s life through the winter; this could be held in a meal chest 2ft by 2ft by 4ft. One and a half bolls would suffice for a woman, whilst a child made do with one. In summer this dreary diet was supplemented with what could be grown in the kale yard, a tiny turf-walled enclosure by each cottage. Meat, and that was likely to be an ancient little ewe or a cut from a pony killed by accident, was a rare luxury because livestock must be turned to cash to pay debts or rents. Even for the lairds, beasts were too precious to be casually consumed. Cheese, butter and hens were also used to pay rent but milk and whey - skimmed, sour, sheep, goat or cow - was available for home consumption. The more hair or wool in the butter the better. It added strength.
By the late eighteenth century the great cash crop after cattle was linen and in summer the heather round the townships would be covered by webs of fabric bleaching in the sunshine. None was ever stolen since theft was unknown - cattle rustling did not count. Others supplemented their income by working for their neighbours as tailors, shoe makers, smiths, barbers, creel makers, or carpenters. By the nineteenth century some ran little shops. Beforehand anything that could not be made on the estate must be bought from pedlars or at the local fairs which were held every year on the same saints’ days. The ostensible business of selling lambs, or goats, or ponies, would attract stall holders and sideshows from the Lowlands to milk Highlanders of their few coppers.
Cash was rare and its lack a real hindrance to trade or development. The promissory notes of the gentry were often the only means of exchange and an IOU from an Atholl laird might be passed from hand to hand to end up months later being used by a Sinclair trading with a Fraser in Caithness. Often these bills would become weapons in the battle for supremacy between clans. The power of magnates and chiefs depended on the state of their finances as well as their armed following. If you had too many bonds out, your rivals could buy them up, foreclose, and send in his warriors to take over your lands.
Life was hard for the Highland man at plough time and peat cutting, but his womenfolk did most of the remaining chores. They harvested, looked after the livestock, spun the wool and linen, and were housewives and mothers. As in all tribal societies, the main duty of men was to sit down, drink ale and deliberate on matters too important for the womenfolk, usually disputes involving the common township lands.
By the eighteenth century ale was being replaced by whisky and this grew in popularity until it lubricated every aspect of life. No visit was complete without its dram, and no task or piece of business too small not to be sealed or celebrated with a nip. The gentry drank claret and at one dinner party given by the laird of Foss, the guests sat down on Sunday afternoon. It was not until they heard the church bells ring the following Sunday morning that they realised, still drinking, how time had flown.
The very bottom of the social scale was occupied by the broken men. These were people who had lost the protection of a chief or laird, and been cast from their lands. Many were dispossessed during the turbulence of the seventeenth century when the rise of Clan Campbell plunged the Highlands into chaos. The broken man and his family might live on marginal land in Rannoch. His hut would be a turf igloo with an entrance so small that he must crawl in the mud to enter. This was home for him, his wife, and whatever children were tough enough to survive in such conditions.
The old two-handed sword of the sort wielded by Wallace and Bruce is the claidheamh da laimh. The later, basket-hilted, lighter, double-edged broadsword is the claidheamh mor or claymore. The introduction of this weapon in the seventeenth century allowed the Gael to develop a new kind of warfare, first employed by Alasdair McColla, Montrose’s ferocious henchman, in Ireland. The clansman dropped his protective armour and clothing, and defended himself with 30" two-ply wooden shield, the targe. He wore just a shirt, brogues roughly cut from deer or cowhide, and his plaid. This great swath of tartan kept the rain off him, and was used as a blanket at night under the stars or the more likely rain clouds. If there was a blizzard, then he dipped his plaid in water which made the garment into a wind break which became even more effective when it froze. There were mutterings of disapproval at the effeminacy of one young MacDonald chieftain who led his father’s tenants on his first winter raid upon some neighbours. Benighted at the top of a pass, his men were appalled to see him build a pillow from the snow.
Inspired by the music of war pipes, the Gaels learned to charge at the foe, pause at the edge of musket range, fire their guns, and throw themselves to the ground to avoid the enemy’s first volley. Whilst they struggled to reload, the clansmen split into wedges of a dozen men and, screaming war cries, they burst through the concealing powder smoke at their opponents. The claymore was a butcher’s weapon, and in the wake of an attack the field would be littered with dismembered corpses and limbs. It took a century and Culloden for regular troops to learn to counter a well-launched Highland charge.
The Stuart kings used Highlander against Lowlander in the seventeenth century, but the Gael had three drawbacks as a fighting man. He would only obey the orders of someone he knew, preferably his laird or chieftain. When he won a victory, he would melt back homeward with his plaid stuffed full of loot, and he was unhappy campaigning far from home and leaving his own estate undefended. Cattle were always the greatest prize. Raiding one’s neighbour or, even better, the sassenachs was considered more sport than crime.
The Lowlanders were sedentary, dependent on their crops to survive. The Highlander had a lesser investment in his arable patch. He knew his house could be easily rebuilt. In times of danger he could shift his beasts to remote corries where they would be safe and if the worst came to the worst and his livestock were stolen he could always take someone else’s. The Gael believed the whole of Scotland rightfully belonged to him. To take a cow from a Lowlander was simply reclaiming his own. His thinking went even beyond this. A cow lived and bred on the hill on God’s good grass, air, and water. It belonged to the Lord and no man could claim possession of it, not unless it was guarded by his own sword.
In some tribal cultures warfare becomes ritualised, but in the Highlands it was always a bloody business. Whole communities were exterminated in the most barbaric fashion and great tracts of country laid waste in settling clan disputes or the struggle for dominance between rivals. Much as the Gaels might weep at the behaviour of the redcoats after Culloden, they had been doing the same to each other for centuries, particularly in the strife-torn 1600s.
As a generalisation one in six of the population were warriors. Any man who failed to answer his laird’s call risked being thrown off his land which would lead to starvation for his family. Still more imperative was the Fiery Cross - a couple of charred sticks bound with a white rag dipped in blood - which was carried round by a runner. This signalled that the country was in danger of attack. To ignore this summons could lead to dishonour and execution.
In 1644 war was raging between the parliaments and the Stuart king. The earl of Atholl was a child. Alasdair McColla had brought his hardened caterans across from Ireland to pursue his clan’s rivalry with the Campbells who had usurped the power of the Macdonald lords of the Isles. He proceeded to burn his way across the Highlands in the name of the king. In August McColla approached Atholl, the crops of Badenoch in flames behind him. 800 Athollmen - Stewarts and Robertsons - gathered to defend their country. Just before the confrontation, the marquis of Montrose interceded and persuaded the two armies to unite under his leadership to fight for Charles I.
Only Sir Alexander Menzies, chief of his clan and holder of land in Strathtay and Rannoch, refused to join this force and his people paid the price when the royalists laid waste to his territory. During Montrose’s dazzling campaign, the earl of Argyll seized his moment to attack unguarded Atholl but faced a terrible retribution when the royalists returned to ravage Campbell lands and slaughter any men they could catch from Loch Tay to the sea. From McColla’s warriors the Athollmen learned the Highland charge and Montrose won only victories when they were in his ranks.
The Athollmen rose again in 1650 against Cromwell’s regime which led to occupation and an attempt at pacification, but three years later they fought again in Glencairn’s rising. The restoration of Charles II brought the Atholl family into royal favour and checked the rise of the Campbells of Argyll, the earl fleeing to Holland after being sentenced to death for treason. He returned to Scotland in 1685 to fight in support of the duke of Monmouth’s claim to the throne and the marquis of Atholl, who had been elevated from earl in 1676, was commanded by King James VII & II to counter him. Under Patrick Steuart of Ballechin, the marquis’s war lord, the Athollmen invaded Argyllshire, captured Inveraray, and hanged seventeen Campbell lairds from the walls of the town. They cut the arms off one before his execution.
When James VII abandoned the British throne to William of Orange in 1688, the marquis of Atholl hurried to London to show his support for the new regime and allied himself to the Scottish Convention that supported William, but Patrick Steuart, took Blair Castle for the Jacobites - the followers of James - and the locals flocked to the banner of Viscount Dundee.
At the Pass of Killiecrankie, the second of the two formidable natural gateways into the heart of Atholl, the Highland charge swept a government army into the river Garry. At the moment of victory, Dundee was killed and the remnants of the defeated regiments retired south. For a month his followers were rudderless. Then the government sent the Cameronians, a regiment drawn from the Covenanters of the south west, to Dunkeld where they fortified the cathedral precincts. Four thousand vengeful Highlanders occupied the heights above and the ensuing battle, in which quarter was neither expected nor given, ended up with the complete destruction of the city before the Highlanders retreated but the rebellion grumbled on for another four years.
The old marquis died in 1703. His son, created duke by Queen Anne, vehemently opposed the Union. When Queen Anne died in 1715, the Whig government in London invited George of Hanover to take the throne. The earl of Mar was dismissed from office by the new king and he accepted a commission from the Jacobite Pretender, returning to Scotland to raise the flag of rebellion. The duke remained loyal and held Blair Castle against the rebels throughout the campaign but his vassals, tenants and most of his own family joined Mar. The Athollmen were split into four regiments, three of which were commanded by the duke’s sons, and the fourth by his nephew, Lord Nairn. Two battalions of the Atholl Brigade were detached to link with the Jacobites in north England. On the day that Mar fought the indecisive battle of Sheriffmuir, the Athollmen in England surrendered to the government army besieging it at Preston, and the Rising collapsed. For thirty years afterwards Atholl was peaceful, its lairds licking the financial wounds imposed as punishment by the authorities.
By the mid eighteenth century the people were edging towards the rest of Scotland. The pacification process after the ‘15 had brought General George Wade to Scotland and he built the first roads into the Highlands. He bridged the Tay at Aberfeldy on his route north from Crieff and this met his second road from Perth at Dalnacardoch. These highways, much of which are still in use under layers of tarmac, were intended to facilitate the movement of troops and cannon north to subdue the clans, but their main effect was to bring the Perthshire Highlands and Lowlands closer together. New ideas were flowing through the straths and people were already beginning to emigrate to find a prosperity that the harsh climate and poor soil of their home country could never offer.
But 1745 brought the Year of the Prince. The most spectacular, ill-starred, and, thanks to the Charter Room at Blair Castle, one of the best documented year of Atholl’s history was ushered in when Prince Charles landed in Eriskay in July 1745. In his company of seven was the duke’s elder brother William, disinherited for his participation in a rebellion of 1708.
When the prince marched his twelve hundred western clansmen towards Atholl the government-supporting duke moved to his southerly seat at Dunkeld. About half the local lairds decided to remain loyal to the Hanoverians and tried to avoid the looming conflict. But many other gentlemen of Atholl felt their honour demanded they once more support the Stuart claim to the throne. They and the tenants on their estates had fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers who had fought for the Stuarts. If Prince Charlie’s father, James, was their king, then William was their duke and they must obey his commands. Clan Donnachaidh joined the Atholl Brigade. In spite of the wishes of their chief, so did Clan Menzies.
Lord George Murray, who was by far the most able of Prince Charles’ generals, perhaps explained the feelings of many Athollmen when he wrote to his brother, the duke James. ‘I own francly...that what I do may and will be reccon’d desperat & ... may very probably end in my utter ruen. My Life, my Fortune, my expectations, the Happyness of my wife & children, are all at stake (& the chances are against me), & yet a principle of (what seems to me) Honour, & my Duty to King and Country, outweighs every thing.’
For two days duke William entertained the prince at Blair. The duke’s cousin, Lady Lude whose mansion house lay virtually within cannon shot of the castle, laid on a ball at which most of the remaining Atholl gentry were guests and the ordinary folk flocked to see the Highlanders and Prince Charles. He and his army then marched through Killiecrankie, Pitlochry, and Dunkeld to Perth while press gangs made up of northern clans, who would not be hampered from thoroughness by ties of kinship, recruited reluctant soldiers from the clachans and the shielings high in the hills.
Lord George drilled his Athollmen until they were the cream of the rebel army. They marched down to Edinburgh and continued south with the prince to Derby. With three government armies ranged against him, each greatly outnumbering his own men, Charles was persuaded to retreat and the weary Highlanders returned to Scotland. In February 1746 at the Battle of Falkirk the Athollmen were the only rebel unit to obey orders and their steadfastness saved the day for the Jacobites, but the retreat continued. The few pieces of rebel artillery were hauled up Wade’s road through Dunkeld to Blair whilst the Highlanders marched through Crieff and across Taybridge.
For a couple of days the Athollmen were in their own country once again while deserters were rounded up. Then the withdrawal north continued and government troops, most of them Campbells of the Argyll Militia, occupied Atholl, billeting themselves in the mansion houses of the absent lairds and the townships. The pass of Drumochter, where the hill called the Sow of Atholl faced the Boar of Badenoch through the March blizzards, was the nomansland between the two armies.
A month later, responding to a letter detailing Campbell excesses in Atholl, Lord George Murray launched a spectacular raid into these straths. Sweeping through Drumochter in the small hours of the morning, he split his troops into thirty-odd small companies each of which attacked the soldiers that occupied their homes. With scarcely a casualty Atholl was retaken by the Jacobites and the captured militia herded north like cattle to Ruthven. Lord George then besieged his brother’s castle at Blair which was occupied by the 21st Regiment under Col Sir Andrew Agnew, a foul-mouthed, foul-tempered old warrior. His opinion of Lord George was succinct. ‘Is the loon clean daft, knocking down his own brother’s house?’
The siege - the last time a castle was besieged in Britain - contained elements of farce. The Jacobites made their headquarters in McGlashans Inn in Old Blair, taking over from the redcoats who had fled into the castle at the rebels’ approach. Lord George had only a couple of small cannon and these were set up in the churchyard in front of the inn. First the garrison had to be offered a chance to surrender.
Knowing Sir Andrew’s cantankerous reputation, none of the Jacobites were willing to approach within gunshot. The dilemma was solved by Molly, one of the serving wenches at the Inn. She knew and had catered to the needs of the government soldiers and volunteered to sashay up to one of the ground floor windows where she handed in a note asking the redcoats to surrender. The missive was taken to Sir Andrew, and his roars of rage made Molly lift her skirts and flee back across to the rebel commanders standing in the churchyard. The redcoat officer who wrote a diary of the siege saw Lord George and his lieutenants double with laughter at her report.
The authorities sent Hessian mercenary troops to Dunkeld to counter the Jacobite re-invasion but these were reluctant to try to cross the passes at Killiecrankie and Glen Goulandie where they might be ambushed by the enemy. They contented themselves by parading on the haugh land on the banks of the Tummel by Pitlochry hoping to draw the Highlanders to combat.
For the troops inside the castle, food and water were short. The besiegers’ artillery was too small do to much more than break the slates on the roof so the local smith set up braziers in St Bride’s churchyard to roast the cannon balls and thus set the castle alight. This was foiled by tubs of urine posted by Sir Andrew at strategic points. The bored officers inside the castle set up an effigy dressed as their commander peering through a spy-glass from a window. The Highlanders enthusiastically blazed away at this tempting target until Sir Andrew inquired what was going on. The young lieutenant who set up the dummy had to brave the Highlanders’ inaccurate fire and dismantle it.
Just when matters were becoming critical for the redcoats, Prince Charles recalled Lord George. The morning patrol of the Hessians found the Highlanders gone. Those besieged in the castle ventured cautiously out, finding still alive a horse that had been shut in an outbuilding for the fortnight of the siege without food and water, and reclaimed McGlashans and Molly as their own once more.
The first time the Atholl Brigade was fully employed in battle was its last. A fortnight after they returned north came Culloden. The Athollmen were on the right wing, the men of each estate standing together behind their lairds. For half an hour they stood in ranks receiving fire from the government artillery as they waited in the driving sleet for the order to charge. When the prince issued the command it failed to reach Lord George who was standing at the head of his men. Finally a regiment to the left could stand the delay no longer and launched the last attack in the last battle on British soil. Within fifteen minutes the conflict was over. The left wing of the Jacobites never made contact with the enemy. Low morale and the impossibility of breaking through the immaculate lines of bayonets left them impotent, throwing stones through the powder smoke at the redcoats.
The Athollmen charged down alongside a field wall and their front was constricted. They ran into a killing ground. A government regiment had manoeuvred so that it could fire into the flank of the charging Highlanders. To the musket fire scything into the ranks of the Brigade was added clusters of two-ounce balls of lead from the artillery which had switched to grape and canister shot. The Athollmen broke through the first rank of Barrel’s Regiment, but the second line held and the impetus of the attack failed. A retreat began through the additional musket fire of the Argyll Militia which was now lining the field wall.
Bar the casualties to the Jacobites as they waited for the order to charge, almost all the losses occurred on the right wing. Some three hundred governments troops were killed. But about fifteen hundred dead and wounded Highlanders littered the heather in front of them. Those who were too badly injured to crawl or be helped from the field were bayonetted by Cumberland’s men.
It took nearly a week before the results of the battle filtered down to Atholl, now once again in the tight grip of the military. On some estates where the laird had been a government supporter, not a man was lost because the tenants knew that their farms were secure if they avoided service in the prince’s army. On the Jacobite estates, the womenfolk would have waited in dread for the news of casualties and in all too many cases it was devastating.
Details from rebel armies that lose are always sketchy. Nobody wants to be associated with disaster and face the consequences. And so proper casualty figures of those who died in these straths was never compiled. However on two Atholl estates - Killiechassie and Kynachan - figures do survive. On the first the laird and four of his men returned, leaving twenty nine dead on the field. Of the thirty six men from Kynachan, only one is said to have come home. It was Atholl’s darkest hour and the beginning of the end for the Gaelic culture.
Had Prince Charles never come to Scotland the ancient culture of the Gael would have probably quietly decayed under the impact of the Industrial Revolution. But the Rising, and the savage effectiveness of the government in exterminating the way of life that spawned its soldiers and could spawn them again, gave the death of this society a focus and a tragic romance that echoes down the centuries.
Captured rebels were executed, transported to the colonies, or died in prison; weapons were confiscated, episcopal meeting houses burned, the kilt, tartan, and the plaid banned, bagpipes forbidden, the authority of the chiefs removed, the Gaelic language suppressed, the estates of leading Jacobites annexed. In addition, government troops were raping, murdering, burning, and looting their way across the Highlands. The duke of Atholl’s factor, Thomas Bisset, strove to protect his master’s lands and its people but the Campbell militia had scores to settle and took its revenge upon the innocent. The guilty were beyond their reach, piled in the mass graves on Culloden moor.
THE TIME OF CHANGE
Traditionally lairds and chiefs measured their wealth and importance in the number of armed men in their tails. After the ’45 this was irrelevant. Power became synonymous with money and this came from rents. Sheep and improved agriculture yielded more than people. During the latter half of the century, many lairds made efforts to bring each township into a single tenancy. Until then they might collect rent in labour and kind from three or four in each clachan who in turn were paid by their subtenants.
Tenants’ superfluous sons joined the Highland Regiments. Forming these had been a stroke of genius by the government. The bagpipes, the kilt, tartan, the broadsword and all weapons were banned - except in the service of his Majesty. In the Highland regiments and only in the Highland regiments could the young Gael enjoy, like his honoured forefathers, the warrior culture and all its trappings. At least fifty thousand young Highlanders, who would in other times have been warriors in the tails of their chiefs and lairds, were siphoned off to fight for the crown in the Americas and in Britain’s colonial wars of the nineteenth century.
With the suppression of his culture after the ’45, the Highlander found that time hung heavily on his hands and he developed a taste for theological disputation. Dugald Buchanan who came as a teacher to Rannoch in 1755 found its inhabitants to be licentious heathens and converted them through his pious example and preaching. By the time of his death, the old stories round the peat fires at ceilidhs had been joined by dogged and dogmatic religious arguments while sects flourished and withered with the passing seasons. A dozen mile walk to church on Sunday was quite acceptable, but parts of Rannoch were twenty miles or more as the crow flew or the Highlander tramped - up one side of a mountain and down the other because it only added on the miles to go round.
Four times a year, in rotation in each parish church, was held the Great Event or the Occasion when communion was offered to thousands of folk from all over Atholl. Dressed in their best clothes and harangued by relays of preachers, they made a long week end of it, and there are moving accounts of the hymn singing of such vast concourses of humanity echoing off the crags and lochs. The lairds chose the parson, his Grace of Atholl having the greatest say. This was at the root of the Disruption of 1843 when the seceders walked out of the General Assembly to form churches whose ministers were chosen by the congregation. Lord Breadalbane, the great Campbell magnate whose seat was on the Atholl border at Taymouth, was a strong supporter of the Free church. He and other lairds gave land so that the new chapels and meeting houses could be built, but most of the proprietors gnashed their teeth at the erosion of their power.
Being aware of their ambivalent status in law, tenants had always relied on dutchas, the old concept of Gaeldom which said that those who farmed the land had rights to it, and the longer they and their forefathers had worked it and fought for it, the stronger those rights. Further north, even the clan chieftains, the equivalent of the Atholl lairds, had no title to their lands and trusted on dutchas when they came to pass their estates to their descendants.
In face of a chief demanding cash rents to cut a dash in society, these men were ousted from their little mansion houses and often led their tenants to the New World. The duke of Atholl was one of the pioneers of mass clearances when he removed the thriving population of Glen Tilt in 1784 to improve his deer stalking. In the following century the duke cleared Glen Garry and much of the land between Dunkeld and Dalguise. Other lairds cleared north Tummelside and parts of Rannoch. The earl of Breadalbane expelled the tenants from both sides of Loch Tay in the nineteenth century and emptied Glen Quaich.
Highlanders had always kept goaty little sheep similar to today’s St Kildas but the so-called great sheep - akin to the modern Blackface - came to these straths in about 1770 and so did the potato. The former produced a greater return than Highland tenants and land was cleared for them. As in Ireland, the latter allowed more people to live on the restricted holdings. Another reason for the population increase came from the introduction of inoculation. Smallpox was the most readily fatal of the myriad of diseases that culled half the children before they reached adulthood. More quickly than in the Lowlands, Gaels realised the value of the remedy and took to it with enthusiasm.
The old standards of agriculture were lamentable. Seed was saved from grains not worth eating; ploughs were wooden and needed a gang of five men and two ponies to operate them; each year lots were drawn to decide who would farm what land for the year, which gave no incentive to invest in fertility if it would be farmed by someone else the following season. Lairds began to introduce agricultural reforms but, even where the great sheep were not taking over the higher farms, better agriculture gave employment to fewer people.
Towards the end of the century the Highlands began to be fashionable. James Macpherson produced a volume of poems purporting to be by the ancient Gaelic writer Ossian and these took Europe by storm, even becoming Napoleon’s preferred campaign reading. Rousseau introduced the concept of the Noble Savage which fitted the Highlander admirably. Dr Johnson met Flora MacDonald who had helped Prince Charles to escape and published his account of the meeting and his tour of the Highlands in 1775. The courage of the Highland regiments in the British army attracted the admiration of the world. The penal legislation introduced after the ’45 was lifted in 1782, but a generation had passed and folk were unaccustomed to the old ways.
The campaign for the repeal of the proscriptive laws was led by the gentry, particularly the Highland Society of London. They sponsored piping contests and Highland games to encourage manly pursuits amongst the people. It was these lairds who set out the framework of what we now consider the traditional culture of Gaeldom. An example of their inventiveness can be found in tartan. In the old days, the ordinary Highlander used the colours she could find in the neighbourhood to tint the wool and there is some evidence to suggest that the prevalence of certain dyestuffs in an area gave raise to a similarity in local tartans. This was taken a stage further. In consultation with the chiefs the Highland Society came up with the idea that each clan had its own tartan. In 1822 George IV visited Edinburgh and, in an astonishing pageant orchestrated by Sir Walter Scott, much of nation decked itself out in kilts and plaids and declared itself Highland.
But agricultural prices had crashed at the end of the Napoleonic wars. Many of the old lairds with their old paternal attitudes were swept away by their debts and their tenants faced new landlords who needed to rationalise their estates if they were not to go the way of their predecessors. At the same time the rising expectation of the people drew them from the poverty-stricken clachans to the cities or to the colonies where life was easier. The sorry emptying of these glens began in earnest.
Of course people remained in the straths, but the culture was no longer theirs. The extravaganza of George IV’s visit could only work because the society it glorified and caricatured was no longer a threat. It had already gone. Scholars were collecting the fragments that remained and writing books to explain the customs of the mountains to a growing audience. The huge success of the romantic movement and Scott’s own novels did much to publicise the Highlands and the Highlander.
The influx of southern tourists coming to view the scenery found that discerning sportsmen were already sampling the delights of the Highland grouse, deer, and salmon. But the music of Gaelic was no longer to be heard in the high shieling pastures where now the only sound was the croak of the grouse and the crack of the deer stalker’s rifle. From being master of his world, the Gael was now the picturesque gillie with a fund of amusing anecdotes with which to entertain the visiting sportsman.
For another century the slow drain of the people from these straths continued. Nowadays Perthshire Gaelic, one of the three or four dialects of the language, is never heard and survives only in the memories of a tiny handful of old men and women. With the old Highland culture gone, it was the incomers who invented the new. Queen Victoria’s interest in Scotland ensured that the fashion for all things Highland intensified. She visited Taymouth and Blair Castles, and made several tours incognito in the neighbourhood. She crowned her enthusiasm for Atholl by presenting the duke with the colours of the Atholl Highlanders, Britain’s only private regiment.
The railway brought more visitors. Dunkeld was on the wrong side of the river for its station, and Birnam expanded to take advantage. The people of Moulin moved down the hill to meet the railway and turned the clachan of Pitlochry into a thriving tourist town. The jute barons of Dundee or English aristocrats built substantial stone villas or bought the estates, and the cream of nineteenth century society would fill King’s Cross station with rods and gundogs at the beginning of August and decamp to the shooting lodges that sprawled in every glen. The aristocracy and royalty of the world admired the scenery, shot the wildlife, put on kilts and reinvented Highland dancing in the ballroom of Blair Castle - and slipped a guinea to the quaint characters who were gillies and did the portering before they went south.
Today Atholl is peaceful and prosperous. No Robertson or Menzies owns an estate in their clans' old territories and just two Stewart estates are still held in the female line. The dukedom is now held by a South African, but the lands at the heart of the old Atholl estate are now preserved for the people of Scotland by a trust set up by the 10th duke just before his death in 1995. But life for the Gaels’ successors is fundamentally different from all the generations that have gone before. Control of the land was at the centre of everything for from it came the food that sustained life. Now that link is broken and farming is but one of the many uses, mainly recreational, to which the countryside is put.
Although it was already under threat, before 1745 the Highlands held a unique culture - virtually unknown beyond the protective rim of mountains. The Rising was its death knell, but its dying gave birth to a strange pastiche of itself now adopted by the Lowlanders and the rest of the world as representative of the nation. It may not owe its legitimacy to the ancient and honourable civilisation of Gaeldom, but it has a vitality and shameless eclecticism that serves Scotland well.
STRATHBRAAN & DUNKELD
The A9 follows the glacial valley north into the Highlands, a rare pathway against the natural grain of the landscape. Like limbs from the trunk of a tree, three straths branch off to the west from the line taken by the railway and the road. The first, the strath of the river Braan, stretches west from Dunkeld and is scarcely noticeable. This is the smallest and least populous of the three. With travel restricted to footpaths and drovers’ tracks it remained remote until the 19th century and one of the last strongholds of Perthshire Gaelic. About five miles up the Braan from Dunkeld, Wade’s road from Crieff to Dalnacardoch runs north up Glen Cochil on its track between Amulree and Taybridge.
In 579 missionaries were dispatched to the peoples along the Tay and at the Pictish capital Dunkeld - which means the fort of the Caledonians - a religious foundation was established. The original monastery would have been a scattering of wood and thatch huts, each with its Culdee monk of the old Celtic church. Stone was first used to build on this site when Kenneth McAlpine rebuilt the abbey as his country's religious centre. Thus the abbot became first churchman of the realm. These Celtic primates were great men and one, Crinan, was father of King Duncan, murdered by Macbeth, and grandfather of Malcolm Canmore.
When Roman Catholicism became the state religion the abbey received a cathedral charter and the abbot became a bishop. The fat estates of the bishopric were an irresistible target for the clans to the north. The Robertsons, their own chief descended from Abbot Crinan, were the prime culprits which was understandable since tracts of the episcopal lands had once belonged to them. In the time of King James II the bishop detained one of the clansmen. The chief and his henchmen descended upon the cathedral during Whitsunday Mass and the bishop had to clamber up and hide amid the beams of the roof to avoid a shower of arrows.
In 1515 the earl of Atholl wished his brother to be the bishop. The Queen and the Pope preferred Gavin Douglas. The latter proceeded to his seat to be installed by his canons in the Dean's house in the town. The cathedral was occupied by the disappointed candidate and he made manifest his disappointment by punctuating the ceremony with artillery fire from the top of the tower.
At the Reformation in 1560 the cathedral was ransacked. The Privy Council ordered the destruction of idolatrous images and other symptoms of Catholicism but its agents went further, sacking the interior and stripping the roof of the nave. The great building languished until 1600 when a local laird re-roofed the choir for use as the parish church.
Dunkeld and its cathedral were saved by the Dukes of Atholl. They were the law across 500 square miles of the Highlands and the town was their administrative centre. The little houses we see today replaced the old village. The cathedral had its roof repaired in 1698 but it remained in a woeful state until 1762 when received a grant of £300 from the government, the first example of such largess from the state, to assist repairs. Major work took place in 1815 and, in 1908 came the complete restoration of the choir. Shipping magnate and local MP Sir Donald Currie had been ill. Upon recovery he asked his devoted nurse, Margaret Rutherford whose father was the minister, what she would like as a gift to express his gratitude for her services. Do up the cathedral, was her reply. Sir Donald manfully complied and his bust is appropriately housed within a tomb originally designed for a member of the superseded Atholl patrons. In 1926 the nave, tower and grounds were given by the Atholls to the Ministry of Works, now Historic Scotland, and in 1931 they gave the Choir and Chapter House to the Church of Scotland.
There is said to have been a bridge over the Tay at Dunkeld in 830 and in 1512 Bishop Brown - the bishops were magnates temporal as well as spiritual - laid the foundations of a footbridge but it was washed away in one of the frequent floods. When Wade came north in 1724, there was no crossing over the Tay from its source to its mouth. Dunkeld was the obvious place for his road from Perth to Dalnacardoch to cross the river and he sent word to Blair asking for a meeting with the duke’s representative at the proposed point. Wade was building his highway on the duke’s land, and the latter was the Lord of the Regality. His Grace has come down as a proud and haughty man. Since this was what was expected of a duke in the eighteenth century, his pride and haughtiness must have indeed been spectacular to have been remarked upon. His response to Wade, commander-in-chief of all castles, forts and armies in Scotland, was that generals must come to dukes, not the other way round. The road maker was not to be intimidated by a local grandee however big his wig. So Wade built his bridge at Aberfeldy instead.
The great north road through Dunkeld had to make do with a ferry until 1808 when Telford spanned the river. This cost his Grace £30,000 and he was empowered to levy a toll until the bridge was paid off. Even the children crossing from Birnam to the grammar school had to buy their day return for a ha’penny. The imposition was bitterly resented by the locals and the Black Watch was called in to keep order when the toll gates were thrown into the Tay in 1869. That year the government paid the remaining debt - £18,000 rather than the £58,000 to which the duke felt entitled - and the crossing became free.
Wade came north briefed to subdue the clans and prevent another rebellion. Given better leadership, the government was well aware that the Rising of 1715 could have toppled the throne. The general’s solution was to have his troops build roads good enough to cart cannon into the heart of the Highlands which would give short shrift to any mutinous chief. His was hardly a role likely to endear him to the Jacobite lairds.
In spite of this he achieved great popularity amongst those one would expect to be his enemies. The poet chief of Clan Donnachaidh, Alexander Robertson, who was unique in being out in the three great Risings of 1689, 1715 and 1745, even composed and recited a poem to Wade to mark the opening of Taybridge at Aberfeldy. It is not one of his best - the king is ‘perplexed till he is told, That Wade was skilful, and that Wade was bold.’ - but is the sentiment from such a quarter that is remarkable.
Road building was a seasonal occupation. One spring towards the end of his time in Scotland the general, a tall man, horrified the locals by picking up a golden guinea - worth 18 oranges, 18 bottles of claret, or a month’s wages - which was lying on top of the standing stone, since known as the Wade Stone, sited on the edge of the north carriageway of the A9 just north of Dalnacardoch. Wade explained that he had left it there the year before for safekeeping. Still quoted in the Highlands is the couplet ‘If you knew these roads before they were made, you would bless the name of General Wade.’
The lack of tree cover was a repeated complaint of the early travellers to Scotland. The old Caledonian pine forest had retreated to a few isolated pockets, driven from the hilltops by climate change and from the straths by mankind. The woodland that now clothes the hillsides north of Dunkeld was first planted by the 4th duke of Atholl at the end of the eighteenth century. The larch was brought to Scotland by William Menzies of Culdares, near Fortingall, in 1742. He presented a few seedlings to the duke who passed them on to a gardener to try in the extensive hot houses at Dunkeld House. Prince Charles Edward Stuart sampled his first pineapple in September 1745 grown in these same gardens.
The larches languished until they were turfed outdoors as being unworthy of further consideration. Whereupon they waxed mighty. When sometime later some Japanese larches were planted nearby, an observant forester noticed that some of the seedlings round about were crosses between the Japanese and European varieties. This hybrid became one of the most important commercial softwood timber trees. It has an unfortunate habit of growing like a corkscrew on good land but in the thin, acid soil of much of the Highlands it develops very well.
The climate and soil of Perthshire produce superb trees, both deciduous and coniferous, At the National Trust’s Hermitage there are record specimens of both larch and Douglas Fir, named after one of Perthshire’s sons who first collected it. The larches are offspring of the parent larches, those original seedlings released into the wild. The last of these still survives behind Dunkeld cathedral.
John Murray was son of Prince Charles’s great general Lord George Murray. The second duke was without a son of his own and John was the heir. During the ’45 he was safely out of trouble at Eton and wrote rather unctuous letters to his uncle expressing suitable dismay at his father’s activities. John married the duke’s daughter and in 1757 landscaped the grounds by the falls of the Braan and built Ossian’s Hall as a little surprise for his father-in-law. The duke professed to be properly charmed and astonished by it all when he was taken there for a Sunday afternoon stroll.
The building contained a chandelier and its walls were lined with mirrors reflecting the falls of turbulent river which was intended to make the visitor feel he was sitting in their midst. Wordsworth took a look and ‘Recoiled into the Wilderness’, for the effect seems to have been excruciatingly kitsch. In 1869, during the campaign to abolish the toll levied by the duke on the bridge at Dunkeld, some aesthete blew up the building. It was restored to be more in keeping with its surroundings. As at the Falls of Acharn above Loch Tay, the Victorian visitor to the Hermitage should have been greeted by a resident hermit whose dank rock chamber a little way upstream of the falls would have generated much sympathy and many tips but the only applicant for the job was trying to escape his wife and family and was deemed unsuitable.
This little backwater on the main road south was where coaches changed their horses. A carriage accident here in 1854 killed Count Rohenstart, the last documented descendant of Bonnie Prince Charlie, who is buried in the cathedral. Inver was home to Niel Gow. After the Rising he was appointed fiddler to the duke of Atholl and became the towering giant of his art, lionised by the nation. Along with his brother and sons he formed an ensemble which played balls in great houses throughout Britain and his music and his style are at the heart of Scottish dance music. Raeburn painted him four times. Great men, including Robert Burns, would make his cottage in the square a stop on their Highland progress. It was a rare sprig of any great Scots family that did not have a jig, reel, or strathspey named after him by Gow. His son Nathaniel played for George IV in 1822. The king proposed a banally flattering toast which quite overcame the player. He was heard to utter the words ‘I’m perfectly content to die now!’
Charles McIntosh was another great exponent of the fiddle, but his life changed after he lost his fiddling fingers in a saw mill accident. He became a postman and for thirty years he walked the strath between Dunkeld and Ballinluig delivering and collecting mail. He became expert on the rich flora and fauna, discovered new kinds of fern, moss, and lichen, listed all the birds he saw, and contributed to scientific journals.
North from Dunkeld the next great strath branching off the route of the A9 is impossible to miss. The first broad sweep of haughland that opens out after crossing the Tay leads straight towards a wooded hillside. Here the Tummel joins the Tay which itself heads west towards its source in Loch Tay. Ballinluig is a hamlet that grew to cater for the railway junction. From here a little branch line used to wind down the strath to Aberfeldy. For a hundred years it carried livestock, seed potatoes, children to school and, from a quarry above Aberfeldy, loads of roadstone which used to swing two miles down the hillside to the station on buckets suspended from an aerial ropeway.
For most of its history Pitlochry was no more than a cluster of farming townships like hundreds of others in Atholl. Under the ownership of the Butter family, government supporters who prospered after the ‘45 and are one of the tiny handful of old lairds who have managed to preserve their estates up to the present, they dozed peacefully away under the shadow of the local metropolis Moulin with its inn and the parish church. This lay up the hill on the junction of the road north - which then kept above the boggy plain - and the route across to Strathardle. Then General Wade built his highway across the haughland and the little clachans at the new junction of his road from Dunkeld to Dalnacardoch overtook Moulin which has spent the last three hundred years as a tranquil backwater.
Wade’s road was a great improvement on what it replaced but was still little better than the most primitive farm track today. The campaigning season was summer and so it did not matter too much what happened to the road in winter. The duke of Atholl once took sixteen hours to cover the distance from his castle at Blair to his mansion house at Dunkeld in his sedan chair.
By the early nineteenth century stage coaches were regularly plying the newly macadamised road north and Pitlochry was one of the most accessible places to capitalise on the new, royally patronised, interest in the Highlands. The aristocracy tramped the heather in search of deer or grouse. The new bourgeoisie holidayed in Fishers Hotel which was soon joined by other establishments built to cater for the demand. The deep breathing of pure Highland air, an excellent medical service, fishing, invigorating walks, and the Hydro soon gained the town a reputation as a health resort. It was already thriving when the railway arrived in 1863.
Pitlochry has kept pace with the times. Thousands come from all over the world to make this one of the most important stops on the Highland Trail. The Festival Theatre is a centre for cultural activities. Housed in the curling rink above the main street is Heartland FM, a radio station run by volunteers which broadcasts to the straths of Highland Perthshire. It is a fine example of the spirit of community that still exists in Atholl. Few radio stations manage to thread their signal through these hills and so the natives began their own. Broadcasting as much speech as music, it is the notice board for the straths.
Although at some time or another most glens, hills, and straths round here would have echoed with the ‘sullen and hollow’ clank of sword against sword and the screams of the wounded and dying, a couple of miles north of Pitlochry the A9 strides across the most famous battlefield in Highland Perthshire. The battle was at the start of the chaotic Highland War which dragged on for several years after Catholic James VII’s abandonment of the throne and the arrival of the Protestant William of Orange. John Graham, Viscount Dundee, rejected the Scottish Estates' decision to accept William as king, and made himself the first Jacobite by raising the standard for the deposed Stuart monarch.
At the end of July 1689 a government army hurried north after it was reported that Dundee was recruiting amongst the Athollmen and that Blair Castle was in the hands of rebels. The Highlanders were waiting for the redcoats just north of the pass of Killiecrankie - the name means wood of the Picts. For much of a hot July day the redcoats were lined up in defensive formation on a patch of flat ground just above Urrard House. They could not retreat since they would have been cut to pieces when they went back through the gorge. The rebel army was massed on the heights of Craig Eallaich and Dundee waited until the sun had descended behind the hills and was no longer in the eyes of his men before launching the Highland charge.
The stories of the battle say that the clansmen fought naked. After sitting on a bare hillside throughout much of a hot afternoon, it would have been surprising if they were still wearing their bulky plaids but the shirt they wore beneath would have preserved most of their modesty. Not even Highlanders would wish to charge into battle through bracken, heather and thistles without some sort of fig leaf to protect and contain their vitals.
The rebels waited until they were near to the ‘very bosoms’ of their enemy before firing a musket volley and after this ‘great clap of thunder, they threw away their guns and fell pell-mell amongst the thickest of their opponents with their broad-swords.’
The execution amongst the attackers when the redcoats fired their own volley was equalled by the butchery of the Highlanders’ blades. Without an effective bayonet, the regular troops had little to counter the broadsword. Half of the government army managed to stand its ground and make an orderly withdrawal, half fled back through the pass in precipitate retreat being harried as far as Perth by the victorious Highlanders and bands of other Athollmen who had not participated in the battle.
A horrifying account of the battle and of the nature of the weapon that Highlanders used survives from a government officer. ‘Many of General McKay’s officers and soldiers were cut down through the skull and neck to the breast: others had their skulls cut above their ears like night caps; some soldiers had both their bodies and cross belts cut through at one blow.’
Dundee was killed by a musket ball at a critical point of the engagement and, in the hiatus this caused, McKay was able to withdraw the surviving regiments of his army across the Garry and retire across the hills to Weem and the south. Some 1200 government troops were casualties left on the field; 500 were taken prisoner and perhaps 800 Highlanders were killed, total losses higher than Culloden.
The Jacobite army doubled in size within a couple of days of the battle but Cannon, the new commander, was no match for his predecessor. 300 Robertsons were routed at Perth by McKay and three weeks later the Cameronian regiment inflicted defeat upon a much stronger force of rebels when they tried to take Dunkeld.
The National Trust Visitor Centre at Killiecrankie is the entrance to the path that follows the old road through the Pass and gives some idea of how formidable an impediment to communications the geography of the Highlands used to create. Along the river are the Soldier’s Leap, where one redcoat’s fear gave him wings across the turbulent rapids, and the spot were the Rev. Robert Stewart hacked Brigadier Balfour to death. At the end of the battle the steel basketwork of the hilt of the minister’s sword had to be cut away by a blacksmith before he could extricate his hand.
Nowadays the vegetation of the Pass is unusual because the woodlands have changed little over the centuries and today still regenerate naturally. Hares and deer, particularly red deer, devastate the tree cover in the Highlands but Killiecrankie has retained its predators. Although not as romantic as wolves, the combination of the railway, the B8079, and the A9 do just as efficient a job in controlling browsers.
Nestling sadly beneath the quarry on the south side of the A9 opposite Blair Atholl is the mansion house of Stewarts of Shierglas. Built about 1720 this is a typical example of the type of dwelling built by the lairds in the eighteenth century. The east gable has collapsed since 1990. In 1765, the laird went to market at Moulin. In the evening he supped in the inn with his brother-in-law, the Stewart laird of Bonskeid. This man was locally feared and disliked since he forced his tenants and others to join the army so that he could take the bounty money. During the evening an altercation erupted between the two men who were almost certainly drunk. Shierglas was said to be eating cheese using his dirk and cut himself on the lip. Enraged by the laughter of the others, he lashed out and caught his brother-in-law beneath the chin and killed him.
It was believed that the ghost of a murdered man would haunt his assassin unless he paid homage at the victim’s burial. Shierglas watched the funeral procession from the hillside before fleeing to Holland with his family to escape facing trial for murder. There he joined the Scots brigade of the Prince of Orange. Eventually he was pardoned, returned home and the families were reconciled. The killer’s daughter was in the congregation at Blair Atholl when her son-in-law, the Rev Alexander Irvine, preached to Queen Victoria when she visited Blair in 1844. He chose as his text ‘Ye are the salt of the earth.’ Lady Charlotte Canning, a lady in waiting, reported that her Majesty did not enjoy the service.
Like Inveraray and Kenmore, this is a company town owned and created by the great man in the nearby castle which, in its Victorian incarnation, sits like a great wedding cake on the north side of Strathgarry. Cummings Tower lying at the heart of the modern castle was erected about 1269 by John Comyn of Badenoch when David, the crusader earl of Atholl, was in England. At one time the Comyns were the most powerful family in the land and claimants for the Scottish crown, fighting against Edward I when Bruce was still the English king’s ally. In the squabbles between Norman immigrant barons for the throne, Robert Bruce murdered the Red Comyn in front of the altar of the Franciscan Priory of Dumfries. Seeking vengeance, his son fought and died on the losing side at Bannockburn and, since winners write history, the family disappeared.
Legend has it that one of these Comyns was a brute who ordered that women on his lands worked naked in the fields when harvesting the crops, a cruel imposition when one considers the midges at that time of year. His end was heralded by his horse which arrived at Ruthven bearing only his leg trapped in a stirrup. The rest of Comyn had been dashed to pieces on the rocks after he slipped from the saddle.
Blair Castle was ‘destroyed with powder’ by one of Cromwell’s colonels in 1653. Yet it lay at the heart of the Rebellion of 1689 and in 1746 endured the last siege in British history when the duke’s brother Lord George Murray spent a leisurely few days bombarding it and its government garrison.
After the Rising the castle lost its top two floors and became little more than a large mansion house. At the same time the garden was laid out with grottoes and classical statues. In Victorian times, when fiddly bits became fashionable, turrets and towers were added to make it more in keeping with how a castle should look.
As major players in national politics, the dukes were forced to spend increasing amounts of time in London after the Union and, in 1771, a ducal mansion was built in Grosvenor Street. In spite of owning the Isle of Man and coal mines in the Lowlands, the bulk of the duke’s interests were in the Highlands and these could not generate sufficient cash for him to compete comfortably with his peers. In Atholl he sold off lands to the resident lairds but retained ownership of a hundred and forty thousand acres. By the twentieth century, taxation and the world depression put the entire estate in jeopardy and it was saved by being bought by the mother of the bachelor 10th duke, a member of the Cowdray/Pearson family. On his death in 1996, the title was inherited by a South African kinsman descended from the 4th duke and the core of the estate was passed into the ownership of a Trust whose duty it is to preserve the landscape in perpetuity for the people of Scotland.
The link between the dukes and the castle has not been lost. The vogue for the Garb of Old Gaul, as the Victorians called the kilt and its accoutrements, was enthusiastically followed by the Atholl family. In 1822, four officers, four sergeants and ninety six men volunteered to dress up in tartan and parade in the duke’s tail when George IV came to Edinburgh. His Grace decided that the enormous Highland input to ‘The King’s Jaunt’ was rather vulgar and left them at home but they paraded at the local Highland games in 1824.
A full contingent, in spanking new uniforms, turned out to march with the new duke down to the Eglinton Tournament in 1838. On this occasion the aristocracy of Scotland put on fancy dress and played at Ivanhoe in the pouring rain. After that the Highlanders regularly turned out to greet and guard his Grace’s most important guests. These estate workers, decked in claymores with pipes to the fore, so amused Queen Victoria that she awarded them their colours, making them the only private regiment of the British army. The regiment still exists, enjoyed as a hobby by those associated with the castle and the estates. It is the duke’s regiment, not the castle’s, and he comes over to this country to meet them and they go to South Africa to meet him. Much whisky is drunk.
The castle grounds are remarkable for their specimen trees and the reception rooms were remodelled during the eighteenth century and this is how they are laid out today with the lavishness one would expect from one of the great potentates of the Highlands. Much of the rest retains the atmosphere of a grand country house of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Of special interest are the mementos of the century of the family’s involvement with Jacobitism and the oddities and antiquities gleaned from the countryside by the local people and presented to the dukes for safekeeping.
The country museum at the southern approach to the village gives a valuable glimpse into life in rural Atholl before it fragmented after the First World War.
Here at the northern end of Atholl lies the heartland of Clan Donnachaidh. The name means ‘Children of Duncan’ who was the first great chief, descended from the kindred of St Columba and the old Celtic earls of Atholl. In the Clan Museum at Bruar is the sacred jewel of the clan, the rock crystal ‘Clach na Brataich’ - the Stone of the Standard - said to have come out of the ground attached to the pole of the chief’s standard at the Battle of Bannockburn. An earlier account, written before 1780, gives a different origin, stating that it emerged near Loch Errochty when the same chief was chasing the MacDougalls of Lorne. Since the former story is more romantic it is increasingly gaining verisimilitude.
By the time of the fourth chief, Robert, the earldom of Atholl was held by Walter Stewart, son of Robert II. He wanted his grandson to be king and took part in the assassination of James I at Blackfriars monastery in Perth in 1436. Walter was soon captured, but his grandson and Sir Robert Graham fled to Atholl where they led a gang of outlaws preying upon the countryside round their stronghold in the forests, now long gone, behind Schiehallion. The chief captured the traitors for which he was granted the charter of the lands of Atholl as far south as Perth. In honour of this chief, many clansmen took the name Robert-son.
The capture of Graham took place by the burn Alt Ghramaich which runs into Loch Bhac high on the moorland between Strathgarry and Strathtummel. There beneath a shelter stone, which still makes an excellent picnic site, the chief found the fugitive and handed him over to suffer the dreadful fate dreamed up by James’s vengeful queen - a week of flogging, a red-hot iron crown on the head, hanging, drawing, and quartering.
The site of the clan centre at Bruar is at the base of one of those spectacular gorges carved through soft rock by a burn in spate. There are many round about although this, and the Moness at Aberfeldy, are the best known. As at Moness, Robert Burns came here during his peregrination of 1786 and produced a poem in its praise. He also petitioned the duke of Atholl, requesting him to make more of this beauty spot and his Grace responded by laying out walks and bridging the tumbling cascade where the most satisfactory views of it might be observed. The short walk round the falls draws thousands each year. These streams have their headwaters on the moors above and respond almost instantaneously to heavy rain. It is after any such downpour that the full spectacle of the peaty, foaming torrents are best appreciated.
Thirty years after Burns, the painter William Turner did much the same tour in Atholl with his sketch book and produced exquisite water colours of many of the finest features. Some of these are now in the Tate Gallery, others are at Yale University. He was precursor of a host of Victorians landscape painters who came to Atholl to paint and feed the public appetite for the spectacular Highland scenery. Landseer was, perhaps, the doyen of this school but many artists were inspired by the lochs and mountains and most seemed to find view points with a conveniently placed Highland cow or two in the middle distance. One, Joseph Farquharson, preferred sheep to cattle, often in snow. His contemporaries nicknamed him Frozen-mutton.
Adjacent to the clan museum is the House of Bruar, the Harrods of the Highlands. Built in 1994 in the Scots baronial style this spectacular retail development markets the best of Scotland’s foods and textiles. The haggis served in the restaurant is consistently excellent.
Within a mile or two of Bruar are the small villages of Struan and Calvine both ancient strongholds of the Clan Donnachaidh. The old church at Struan had an ancient Celtic bronze bell, one of three that survived down the centuries, which is now in Perth Museum. On the banks of the Garry, a couple of hundred yards upstream of the church, sits the mound which used to be topped with the stronghold of the Clan Donnachaidh. Struan means stream and this is the territorial title still used by the clan chief.
In very few places did the Highland soil produce enough oatmeal to feed the population. The deficit was made up by the sale of cattle. If harvest was poor, raiding was the only way to survive. Atholl was a buffer between the wildest Highlanders and the Lowlands where the richest pickings were to be had, and Athollmen had always to be on the alert to preserve their own beasts. Rannoch was the worst of the badlands. There lived broken men, those who lived without the protection of their own clans and chiefs. A visit to the moor will show why any resident there could not hope to survive without thieving from someone else.
The great straths of Atholl are Strathtay and Strathgarry. Along Strathtummel - where the heather tracks led onward to the Isles - the land was less fertile and the natives less accessible and more hostile. Here more than anywhere in the area the shape of the countryside has been altered by man. Run up the Tummel from the Cluny dam in Pitlochry and there are three more dams each taking electricity from the action of water over the landscape. The crow could fly forty miles west across the great barren reaches of Rannoch Moor to the edge of Glencoe and still be in the catchment area of the Tummel. The dam at Cluny has lifted Loch Tummel fourteen feet, swamping an island stronghold of the chiefs of Clan Donnachaidh where once flourished a heronry, and drowning much of the haughland to the west.
With John Brown, Queen Victoria did a circular tour of this area in 1866. She stopped to brew a cup of tea near Tummel Bridge and was then arrested by a sign reading Queen’s View. She had never been at the spot before but gave her blessing on this example of the native entrepreneurial spirit. The view she admired looking up the strath to Schiehallion has been enhanced since the loch beneath rose. The same may be said for the road along the south side of the loch towards Foss. A hundred years ago, a writer designated it the most beautiful few miles in Scotland and it is difficult to doubt the raising of the water has further enriched it.
The strath has a violent and colourful history. As one enters is the Coillebrochain, Porridge Wood, said to immortalise one of the tens of thousands of meals eaten by King Robert Bruce. Perhaps some local landowner can invite the monarch for the night, and then rename the wood Full Scottish Breakfast. Bruce, having disposed of his rival Comyn, crowned himself king of Scots in 1306. Later that year he challenged the English commander Pembroke to venture from the city of Perth and do battle. Pembroke agreed to fight on the morrow, but attacked instead that night when the Scots were encamped in a wood. The monarch and his defeated supporters fled into the wildness of Atholl before he paused to enjoy his sylvan breakfast.
Sheltered by Duncan, first recognised chief of Clan Donnachaidh, Bruce and his queen stayed in Strathtummel, living off the land almost as outlaws. He won a victory against an English army at Kinloch Rannoch. Innerhadden was where the battle started, Dalchosnie next door means field of victory, Glen Sassun is the glen of the southerners through which advanced the English troops. The king ventured west and was defeated near Tyndrum by the McDougall of Lorne, who supported the Comyn claim to the throne, and retired back to Strathtummel. A ford on the Tummel, now beneath Dunalastair Water, was the King’s ford. The King’s Hall was just in the woods to the south and the Queen’s Pool was a little further downstream. Eight years later Duncan led his clan down to Bannockburn fighting alongside Robert I to defeat the English and make him undisputed king of Scotland.
North of the Tummel are Fincastle and Bonskeid, ancient Stewart estates still held by descendants of the Wolf of Badenoch. Parchment charters record the 600 year-old rights of the occupiers of the strath. Before that the Picts showed ownership by building castles and fortified homesteads. Standing stones and burial mounds are the only territorial markers left by even earlier peoples - no doubt just as proud of their forebears and rights of possession as the Gaels who later made the landscape their own.
The hills to the south of the strath are rich in minerals, as well as deer, mountain hares and ptarmigan. In spite of the fish ladders round the dams the salmon are fewer than they used to be and, since the war, the numbers of grouse which once swarmed on the moorlands have crashed catastrophically. This has been a managed landscape since man’s first arrival. Managing it for a crop of grouse meant the hard persecution of species that preyed upon them. Disease and the decline of keepering as well as changed farming practice has has hammered the grouse population, but the sight of the eagle, peregrine, hen harrier, merlin, and osprey may seem a fair recompense from an environment where mankind has withdrawn the heaviest of hands. High in the hills is a barytes mine and great trucks carrying the mineral coexist amicably with the wildlife. The ore is crushed to provide a lubricating mud for oil drilling.
Before wheels it was quicker to go over a mountain rather than round it. The great herds of cattle from north-west Scotland crossed Tummel Bridge and the Tay at Inchadney near Taymouth before taking to the hills through Glen Quaich towards Crieff. As land became enclosed, drovers were forced to stay on roads which were hard on the feet of the beasts. This allowed the smith at Trinafour to thrive on shoeing the animals on their way south.
Observers often saw these great drifts of cattle as resembling water flowing over a landscape - moving slowly across the plains in a broad stream, splitting round rocks and then being channelled into rapids by a gorge or a narrow glen.
The drovers were Highlanders, wearing plaids and carrying broadswords and targes. The risk of robbery was ever-present and even when the authorities were trying to disarm the Highlands these men were licensed to carry weapons. After the cattle were sold, the drovers often continued south with the beasts which fattened near London before being slaughtered and fed to the capital or the navy. These Highlanders formed the only image of the clansman that most southerners would ever see, more exotic than the black servants of the plantation-owning gentry or the gypsies with their dancing bears. Often the men would return by ship in spring after spending a comfortable winter in the south with one of the matrons who found the bare thighs of the plaid-wearing Highlander objects of interest, as did the bawdy balladeers of the day. ‘Will you row me in your plaidie, Oh my bonny Highland Laddie?’ runs one eighteenth century ditty.
The cattle dogs were dismissed on reaching their destination to return home under their own volition. The drover himself would pay the innkeeper next season for the food he would have given the dog as it passed through the previous autumn.
Perhaps the most interesting and romantic mountain in Scotland, its name means either the Maiden’s Pap which is most appropriate from the direction of Loch Rannoch, or the Seat of the Caledonian Fairies. During the last ice age, a great glacier had its seat on Rannoch Moor. From there it spread east gouging out the straths. Like an island, the peak of Schiehallion stood above the ice. The millennia of frost left the shattered boulders and scree that cover the summit ridge. The mountain is quartz but one large granite boulder near the top was carried like a cork on the surface of the glacier and deposited on the shore when the ice withdrew.
On the east side of the mountain lies the Maiden’s Well fed by a crystal-clear spring of pure water that bubbles from the heart of the hill. Here on the dawn of Beltane, the first of May, the girls from the townships would dance and drink to bring health and good fortune for the coming year.
Long important in legend, Schiehallion achieved a unique distinction in the eighteenth century. Thanks to its isolated position and convenient shape the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne, selected it for his experiment of 1774 to measure the density of the planet and thus establish the universal force of gravity promulgated by Newton which underpins the science of astronomy. He spent a soggy season on the mountain, setting up observatories and complex scientific instruments to measure the minute amount that the mountain attracted a pendulum by comparing its angle to the stars. Amongst his assistants was William Mason who invented the contour line to assist his side of the work which fixed the position of Maskelyne’s pendulum by triangulation. Mason gave his name to the Mason-Dixon Line which marked the boundary of the northern and southern states of America.
The Astronomer Royal employed a local gillie, Duncan Robertson, whose fiddle whiled away those frequent evenings when the mountain was shrouded in mist and cloud, preventing observation of the heavens. At the end of the first summer on Schiehallion, Maskelyne threw a ceilidh in the bothy on the mountain for those locals who had built it for him. Whisky was taken; the bothy caught fire; Duncan’s fiddle was destroyed. The following spring the carrier brought a parcel from London containing a gift from the Englishman. It was a new violin resplendent in yellow varnish for which the recipient composed a song ‘The Yellow London Lady’.
In the early nineteenth century the fiddle was broken and Duncan’s descendant sent it to Manchester to be mended. There is some doubt if the repairer returned the correct instrument. Nevertheless the fiddle was handed down through the family, is still played and can be seen at the Clan Donnachaidh Museum at Bruar.
One winter in the late nineteenth century, a devout and pious girl named Margaret Ritchie vanished from her home in the strath below. Ten days later her body was found in her nightdress frozen solid right on the mountain peak. She was lying on her back, her arms crossed, and had a sweet smile on her face.
Wade’s great highway from Crieff crossed the river at Tummel Bridge. To the west there were only paths. This was by human design. Alexander Robertson of Struan (1670-1749), chief of the Clan Donnachaidh, had his seat at Dunalastair on the north side of the Tummel by Schiehallion. An annoyance to the government for his Jacobite politics all his life, he also annoyed his neighbours for doing nothing to discourage those on his lands from cattle theft. The other lairds jocularly referred to him as the Tyrant or the Elector of Rannoch. He distrusted women, was an ineffectual yet enthusiastic soldier, and a mighty toper. He deliberately kept the roads into his domain in bad condition to discourage visitors and agents of authority. On the few occasions that debt collectors managed to penetrate as far as his Hermitage at Dunalastair, his clansmen threw them into the river or bounced them back across Tummel bridge outraged at their temerity in demanding money from their chief.
Plenty of chiefs were barbarians, but Struan was in some respects the most civilised of men. He was a poet - his work may not have stood the test of time but his contemporaries were suitably impressed - not only in English and Gaelic but also in Italian, Latin, and French. Long periods of his life were spent in exile with the Jacobites in St Germains and Avignon. King James called him the first gentleman of his court.
By the time of the ’45 Struan was an old man but still led his clan down to the Battle of Prestonpans. After the victory he appropriated the gold chain, the wolf-fur cloak, the brandy, and the carriage belonging to the defeated commander, Sir John Cope. His clansmen escorted him back home. For the last few miles after a wheel had broken, they carried the coach on their shoulders. Inside Cope’s coach was a slab of chocolate. This was viewed with deep suspicion and discarded. The chief’s portrait depicts him holding a glass and toasting the spectator, an appropriate pose since it is recorded that the duke of Perth was hors de combat when Bonnie Prince Charlie sent his summons in 1745. The duke had been staying with Struan and it took him several weeks to recover from the effect of the drink he had consumed.
In earlier centuries the Robertson chiefs were lords over much of Perthshire. By the time of the poet chief, the clan lands were restricted to the south shore of Loch Rannoch, some parts of Glen Errochty, lands round Fearnan on Loch Tay, and the old man’s own home at Dunalastair. Love of his own ‘country’ was one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Highlander. Struan took this to extremes and was one of the many writers who described this part of Scotland as paradise and, when he left it, would announce that he was descending into the world.
The road to the north of Dunalastair joins up with the Wade road across Tummel bridge. This still winds up the hillside above Trinafour but is now a branch off the route though Glen Errochty to Struan and Calvine. This glen was once dominated by the Clan Donnachaidh but these lands were lost to the earl of Atholl in 1511. A good half of the Robertson lairds were thenceforth supposed to follow the Atholl family rather than their chief. And sometimes they did.
Parts of the western Highlands were devastated by government troops after the crushing of the ’45 Rising but Atholl got away comparatively lightly. The exceptions were Glen Errochty and Rannoch. Nowhere in Atholl had the Jacobite flame burned more fiercely. The greatest of the Culloden casualties had been on the extreme right of the line which was the position held by the first battalion of the Atholl Brigade and these were the men from Tummelside. The government knew this was the heartland of the rebellion in Highland Perthshire. Moreover the Campbells of the Argyll Militia had been headquartered at Kynachan near Tummel Bridge when they had been caught unawares during Lord George’s raid just before Culloden. They wanted revenge for the humiliation. Twice they ravaged the land between lochs Tummel and Rannoch.
The surviving fugitive Jacobites skulking in the hills and woods could do no more than watch their homes being destroyed from the crags above. One, Allan Stewart of Innerhadden, amused himself by writing verse. A contemporary informs us that he composed best when ‘warm flustered with whisky’. The leader of the Argyll Militia on the second raid was Colin Campbell of Glenure, victim of the Appin murder in 1756 which was the foundation of R.L. Stevenson’s novel ‘Kidnapped’. This author spent a season at Moulin above Pitlochry and produced ‘Thrawn Janet’
The only two estates in Atholl to be confiscated after the Rising were in Strathtummel. Lochgarry was one. Its laird was an old Jacobite war horse, Donald Macdonnell, who was on the prince’s council with Lord George Murray and the other chiefs. He escaped with the prince in the French frigate ‘Heureux’ after the same six months hiding in the heather.
The other belonged to the chief of Clan Donnachaidh. Before the ’45, Rannoch was one of the most remote, poverty-stricken, and backward regions of the Highlands but this changed. Amid the government’s policy of cultural genocide applied to the Highlands after the ’45, the record of the Commissioners for the Forfeited Estates is a light in the darkness of persecution. The clan system froze its society. The chief had total power over his tribesmen and warfare was both a recreation and an instrument of policy. Matters such as agricultural improvements, the creation of infrastructure, industry, and raising the living standards of the people were not on his list. These were the priorities of the factors on the confiscated estates.
The village of Kinloch Rannoch was created in the period after the ’45. It is a nomenclatural oddity. Kinloch means the head of the loch whereas this village is at the foot. Similarly, a good general rule is that a river originates in the loch that bears its name. Not so with the Tummel which one would expect to be called the Rannoch. Redcoats built roads from Tummel Bridge and round the side of Schiehallion. The river was bridged adjacent to the new settlement. Initially this was to be populated by retired soldiers who would act as long term insurance against further rebellions, but their habits - picked up in a thousand European estaminets, bierhaufs, and alehouses - militated against the bucolic rhythms of a croft and so Rannoch people were given leases for their own few acres for the first time.
The factors encouraged the linen industry by building little mills. Craftsmen moved in to keep the machinery in repair. This brought cash into the community and gave more economic power to the women who did the work. Lime burning was introduced to reduce the natural acidity of the soil and grow more crops, particularly the potato.
At one time the Commissioners intended to drive a road across Rannoch moor to Glencoe and thus make Kinloch Rannoch the hub of the Highlands. Two hundred and fifty years later, the road is still occasionally mooted. The redcoats built themselves a barracks at the head of the loch and continued their road westwards for a few miles. They were even put to work in a futile attempt to drain parts of the moor and make it cultivable. Today the scars are still visible.
The man best remembered in Rannoch from this time was Dugald Buchanan. He was from Balquhidder and won the job of schoolmaster at Kinloch in 1764. Today a memorial stands in the centre of the village to commemorate the impact that he made upon the people. He was ‘affable, free, and jocular...a severe disciplinarian, feared, but at the same time beloved.’ He was a great religious poet in Gaelic as well as a teacher and preacher and in the ten short years before he was carried off by fever he brought about a moral and religious transformation of the people. The soil would have been fallow. Their culture had been turned upside down and they were waiting for something to fill the void but they were fortunate in having a man of the quality of Buchanan to introduce them to the morality and beliefs of the rest of the nation.
The old Jacobite chief in Rannoch, Alexander Robertson of Struan, was burned out of his Hermitage at Dunalastair by government soldiers, and then burned out of his second home at Carie on the south side of Loch Rannoch. His clansmen hid him in the depths of the Black Wood until the first frenzy of post-Rising destruction had died down. The old man died in 1749 and two thousand mourners - men, because women did not attend funerals - marched behind his coffin fourteen miles to his grave in the kirkyard of Struan.
The Black Wood where the old chief found refuge had long served as a hiding place for those escaping their enemies. Its survival is due to its position on the slios garbh, the rough side of the loch, which was stony and infertile save for a few places where a burn running into the loch has created a miniature delta. The Wood is a relic of the old Caledonian forest which once clothed Scotland. It contains important communities of species characteristic of old pinewoods, particularly insects, lichens and fungi. The old Highlanders believed its ancient pines to be the haunt of fairies and other sinister spirits which helped preserve privacy for fugitives.
At certain points in history the Wood was extensively felled. In the nineteenth century a timber chute led down from the heart of the forest and trunks of trees hurtled down into Loch Rannoch and eventually floated into the Tay. Sometimes their speed was such that they buried themselves in the bed of the loch and some are still there. Some timbers were hauled over to Glen Lyon and manhandled down the river to provide General Wade with a scaffolding during the building of his bridge at Aberfeldy. Now when one looks at the woods that clothe the high ground in both straths, one can be forgiven for wondering why the general did not use material closer to hand. It is an indication of how bare and treeless these straths used to be, and consequently how rare mature timber was.
The Pedlar’s Stone by the hotel complex on the north shore of the loch was where the packman’s load slipped when he rested it upon the stone and he was strangled by a strap. These men used to trudge round the Highlands carrying knives, needles, mirror, ribbons, salt, spices and anything else they thought might sell. They peddled luxuries and the necessities of life that the land and the estate craftsmen could not manufacture. Later they carried chapbooks, precursors of the paperback, which told vivid stories with religious morals, or simply vivid stories which were avidly devoured by the Highland people once education had reached the remoter glens.
The pedlar was also greatly valued as a source of information and news. The more he could produce the greater his welcome and his sales. He brought knowledge of the nation fresh from Edinburgh or London. He also brought news and gossip, if they are not interchangeable terms, from the neighbouring estates and clachans. He would be welcomed at the mansion house of the laird with a dram and would glean what he could for dissemination round the townships. The doings of the family in the Big House was a subject of absorbing interest to the tenantry.
On the north side of the loch, the slios min - the smooth slope - the soil was more fertile and faced south to the sun. Here and out into Rannoch Moor the land was held by the Menzies but he seems to have had but the loosest control over its people. The king more than once ordered him to curb the brigands and outlaws, usually MacGregors, who infested the area. Menzies clansmen were rare in Rannoch. Most of the inhabitants of the north side of the loch were Camerons and Macdonalds who had spilled across the moor from their own clan lands. The remarkable remoteness of Rannoch from its neighbours was shown when the Menzies failed to notice that his land was being squatted upon by these outsiders who were paying their rents to their own chiefs. In reality the lord of the land was always the man who could protect or intimidate the people and, far from the rule of law, the contents of treasured charter chests were sometimes of only academic interest.
The rivers once played a large part in the life of the locality. Early road builders failed to include bridge building in their sphere of responsibility and rope-hauled barges ferried horses, cattle, and carts whilst passengers crossed in dozens of little rowing boats. Accidents and drownings were frequent in conditions such as when an observer noted the Tummel rise seventeen feet in an afternoon. The finest ferries were across the Tay and Tummel at Logierait. There two boats were bolted together to create the platform for carriages. Tethered to a rope and pointed upstream, the current wafted them across the river. A small change of angle and back they went. A dozen or so dams now keep the Tay river system under control in all but the greatest inundation and generate 14% of Scotland’s electricity.
Adjacent to the inn at Logierait was the site of the Regality Court house. Demolished in the last century this was the largest hall in Atholl where, as part of their feudal duties, the duke’s lairds would gather to act as juries at trials. The prison once held Rob Roy, who escaped, and some 120 prisoners captured after the Battle of Prestonpans by the Jacobites in 1745.
The place name means ‘little hollow’ by the rait or castle. The rait just north of the village held an Iron Age fort; later it was the site of a hunting lodge for fourteenth century Stewart kings. Later still this became the execution mound for the Regality. One cattle thief about to meet his Maker was approached by an old woman who had lost her cow. Since he was so high on the mound, would he mind having a look around for it? His response has not been recorded. A sheep stealer was the last man hanged here with his collie dog, his aider and abettor, strung up beside him. Another’s execution was being supervised by the laird of Clochfoldich. The rope broke twice, so the laird ordered one plaited from withies which did the trick. He was comprehensively cursed by the victim's mother who predicted the time would come when there would be no heir for his property. She was guilty of overkill since none of the lush estates up the Tay from here are held by the old families of the time who were vassals to the duke of Atholl. Now the execution mounds sports a tall Celtic Cross, elaborately carved, which was was erected in 1866 in memory of George, 6th duke of Atholl.
The great statesman of eighteenth century Scotland, Duncan Forbes of Culloden, was once dining with the duke of Atholl when his chamberlain, Thomas Bisset, entered to confirm that it was still his Grace’s pleasure to hang a cattle thief. The duke decided not. Forbes remonstrated, saying that reprieving a condemned man was the prerogative of the king. The duke replied that since he was the one who sentenced the man, he saw no reason why he should not let him off. The duke was hereditary Sheriff of Perthshire as well as being Lord of the Regality. These powers were removed in 1747 when the government broke the power of the chiefs. His Grace was compensated to the tune of £2823-18s
The churchyard has intricately carved, double-sided gravestones which enjoyed a vogue in the first half of the eighteenth century. From these it is often possible to deduce the occupation of the deceased. A farmer will have a plough or a spade, a tailor a pair of scissors, a mason a hammer.
In 1828 William Burke was tried in Edinburgh for murder and selling the bodies of his victims for dissection. A full-blown scare throughout the nation led to sentinels being stationed by fresh graves and a rash of mortsafes were erected to give more permanent protection to the dead. Several examples can be seen here.
Along the north face of the strath between Logierait and Aberfeldy are eleven estates whose boundaries have been largely unchanged for a thousand years, each with the classic proportion of arable fields by the river and the lower slopes of the hill, rough grazing higher up, and a substantial swathe of moorland overlooked by Farragon - the Hero in Gaelic or, if you prefer it, the Wart. The mix of land allows the owner his salmon fishing, his pheasant shooting and, on the moor, the pursuit of grouse and deer. These estates always carried a high population because limestone occurs on the hillsides and thus the soil is fertile and can grow crops at a greater altitude than is common in the Highlands.
The most important of these estates, all of them under once the superiority of the duke of Atholl, was Ballechin which stretches along the north bank of the Tay for much of the way between Logierait and Pitnacree bridge. The family who occupied it for three centuries was perhaps was the most powerful of the many Stewarts of Atholl. They were Gaelic and Highland in their culture but, having never had a chief, could not be called a clan.
The Ballechin family descend from a bastard son of James II and were the most enthusiastic of Jacobites. In Glencairn’s Rising, the laird was killed by Cromwellian troops at Dunkeld in mistake for the earl of Atholl. During Dundee’s campaign the head of the family, Patrick of the Battles, was the marquis’s military commander, his brother chamberlain. The marquis supported the government but Patrick took Blair Castle for the rebels. The Rev Robert Stewart, minister of Balquhidder and nephew to the chamberlain, laid aside his dog collar and earned the sobriquet of Robert Mobile thanks to the speed at which he cut down government troops at the Battle of Killiecrankie.
Patrick and his sons were heavily penalised by the marquis for their rebellion but the family were out in the ’15 and the ’45 and were lucky to retain their heads and their bowels, let alone their estates. During the nineteenth century the laird married a Roman Catholic and built a chapel on the Tulliepowrie burn in Strathtay but the conversion brought about the family’s downfall. In the subsequent generation the heir’s line died out, and, of the two spares, one became Abbot of Prinknash Abbey in Gloucestershire and the other head of the Jesuits in Great Britain. Roman Catholic priests have no legitimate descendants and that was that.
In the 1890s Ballechin was let for three months to the Society for Psychical Research who had heard reports of a ghost. They published their results in The Times and one of their number followed up with a book. Not allowing themselves to be distracted by the loquacious central heating system, they heard supernatural bumps, bangs, groans, gurgles, grunts and breathing - both heavy and anguished. Nuns were observed, spectral priests mumbled mass, dogs put their hackles at unseen rivals, temperatures fluctuated and a retired colonel reported an invisible calf disturbing his rest by hurling itself at his bedroom door.
The Society tried to lease the premises the following year but the proprietor understandably found a prior booking. One concrete outcome of the summer was that the staff refused to live in the house so the laird was forced to build a detached wing for them. This is all that remains of the mansion which, riddled with rot, was pulled down in the 1960s
Robert Stewart became minister of Killin in 1680. He neglected his religious duties and pocketed all the parish income for nearly 50 years. Consequently he was able to buy one of these creamy Strathtay estates for each of his four sons - Killiechassie, Blackhall, Clochfoldich and Derculich
The village is the creation of its bridge over the Tay and the railway. Across the river from the station, the Victorian bourgeoisie built solid stone mansions in which to spend their holidays and retirement. This village appropriated Strathtay as its name and was considered a most healthy spot sited by a finely foaming stretch of the river now much used by canoeists. Grandtully is a misspelling, so is Grantully Castle a mile upriver which at least is true to pronunciation. The Gaelic garan-tulach, the hill of the thicket, became Gairntully in English and then slithered still further.
The castle, in private hands, dates from the late 1600s but doubled in size early this century. Its predecessor was nearer the river but the proprietor of Clochfoldich used to pot arrows at his neighbour from the opposite bank. After losing an eye, the laird shifted his castle out of bowshot. The castle was the headquarters to any army, Jacobite, Royalist, Williamite or Cromwellian that was occupying the strath.
Sir John Stewart, laird at the time of the rising of 1715, entertained the Pretender at his house in Dundee for which crime he was fined £10,000 by the government. Although the Jacobites recruited a company from his lands in 1745, this was enough to ensure his successor kept out of Scotland and out of trouble.
ST MARY’S CHAPEL.
The area up the hill behind Grantully Castle was once amongst the most heavily populated localities of the strath, the scattered houses remaining once marking the locations of thriving communities with their own shops and tradesmen. Five centuries ago there existed a manor house called Pitcairn and nearby was built the little Church of St Mary of Grantully. In 1553 the laird granted lands to maintain the priest and for many years this was the local church and the burial place of the district. During sermons the congregation would scuff the skeletal remains of their departed landlords from the earth floor. It is remarkable for its ceiling painted in 1636 which intermixes apostles and saints with the arms of the laird’s family. The artist, in this at least like his predecessor Michelangelo, painted it lying on his back. So intent was he on his work that he would not speak to spectators. A score of generations from the neighbourhood are buried beneath the floor of the chapel and in the little graveyard. The Church of Scotland hold a service here on the last Sunday in July.
Most fermtouns grew organically but this was laid out in a neat little street because it was built to rehouse those displaced by agricultural improvements. When the duke at Blair and the marquis at Taymouth were clearing their tenants, the Stewarts of Grantully were building them model villages. In the 1860s, its inhabitants had become depraved save for one ‘Virtuous Man’. His neighbours decided to do away with him and took him to the inn at Grandtully and plied him with drink until he became unconscious. He was then carried behind the establishment, a funnel was put into his mouth, and boiling water poured down his throat thus killing him without marking the body. He was buried in nearby Ward wood. His disappearance came to light when the population of the village emigrated to New Zealand and a roll was called. The absence of the Virtuous Man was accounted for by his killers saying that he had gone to Fife. They and the emigrants from nearby Sketchewan gave the same name and the same layout to the villages they built for themselves in New Zealand.
This is what used to be called a thriving market town. The market has long closed but the town still thrives. Outside Inverness nothing larger than a hamlet is of any antiquity in the Highlands. Some towns were created by a local grandee, others grew up when the railway came through, still others were settled by those cleared from the land. For its existence Aberfeldy must thank the duke of Atholl who failed to show General Wade the respect to which he felt he was entitled and, in 1730, this led the bridge spanning the Tay to be built here rather than at Dunkeld.
Before that Aberfeldy was just one of the little farming townships scattered along the sides of the strath. Most authorities give the origin of the name to ‘Mouth of St Palladius’ burn’. But it has been pointed out that Palladius never visited Scotland and thus is unlikely to have lived in the Den of Moness as his adherents suggested. A more likely inhabitant to have the town named after him was Paldy, King of the Urisks, who inhabited the falls at the top of the Birks. Urisks were large, strong, uncouth, grumpy beings - half man half goat - who lived by water and loitered round farmyards at harvest time hoping for hand outs. Paldy would have prospered for he could pop out the top of his falls and scrounge round the regular market at Margmore which served this once heavily populated area. Paldy and his subjects were enjoying a ceilidh in a shed above Loch Tay when they were gatecrashed by a shepherd. This gave them such a fright that they all emigrated from the district.
The town motto reads in Gaelic ‘Swift and often goes the boat of Aberfeldy’ but the ferryman must have been less than pleased when the great bridge designed by William Adam was thrown across the Tay. For the building of his bridge Wade is said to have based himself at the inn at Weem and it was from there that he organised the Independent Companies to police the Highlands and prevent cattle theft. Officered by Campbells and other clans of proven loyalty, the Companies attracting the young gentry of Atholl who joined as private soldiers bringing their gillies with them to look after their kit. The Companies were the foundation of the Black Watch, the Royal Highland Regiment, which first mustered here by the Tay in 1740.
Neither the bridge nor the Companies quite worked as Wade intended. The bridge, like the roads, was certainly built and used by the military but it was the soldiers of Prince Charles who crossed and re-crossed it during the Rising, and it was graduates of the Companies who provided a core of skilled officers for the prince’s army which so nearly overthrew the state. The monument by the bridge was raised to the Black Watch in 1887 and the sad soldier on the top is based on Farquhar Shaw. He and a brace of Macphersons were shot at the Tower of London in 1743 for being ringleaders in a regimental mutiny. They had been recruited on the understanding they would stay in Scotland. When the authorities marched them down to London and prepared to ship them abroad, the regiment decided to return home but surrendered peacefully to the dragoons sent after them.
Not a building in Aberfeldy dates from the time of the bridge. Moness House, now a hotel on the southern edge of the town, was the mansion house of the long defunct Flemyngs of Moness. Their daughters spiced the genes of many local lairds but, soon after completing the house in 1753, the male line of the family died out.
During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the biggest cash earner for the Highlands was the distilling of whisky. The Dewars, originally the keepers of the sacred relics of St Fillan, emerged from the ranks of dozens of illegal whisky makers in Atholl and Breadalbane to build the distillery just to the east of the town, gain a peerage, move into a castle, and found Distillers Company Ltd. You can buy the Aberfeldy Malt at the Visitor Centre, but, save for those few bottles sold locally, all the product goes to add quality to Dewar’s blended brands.
The Moness burn joins the Tay through the golf course. Behind the war memorial in the centre of town it runs through woods and lawns. Follow its course upwards and you enter the Den of Moness, a cathedral of giant beech trees. Above here, the burn has carved a gorge and along with its tributaries crashes down through the ancient woodland in a myriad of cascades. By one of these is a convenient, if invariably damp, ledge of rock where, so a plaque tell us, Robert Burns sat and wrote his song ‘The Birks of Aberfeldie’ which forever set this place amongst the official beauty spots of the nation. A path winds up each side of the ravine, crossing above the high falls where Paldy the Urisk once lived. In summer the water gently streamers down the face of the cliff. After winter rain it turns peat-brown, grows a hundred-fold and thunders into its cauldron shaking the solid rock of the gorge side. In late afternoon when the storm has passed, the sun paints rings of rainbows in the cataract’s spray.
The name comes from the word ‘uamh’ in Gaelic which means cave. The caves are in the wooded crags above the village and, like all such in Atholl, are a bit of a disappointment. The one extant is a sheltered recess in the rock face graced by a well. The first recorded inhabitant of this spot was St Cuthbert who tarried here ten years. He built himself a stone bath in which he used to immerse himself overnight and pray. Unfortunately a neighbouring princess accused him of seducing her. He prayed, the earth opened, she was swallowed up and the saint had to flee the wrath of her father. He died Abbot of Lindisfarne in 687. The well is not called St Cuthbert’s but St David’s Well. This David was a mid-fifteenth century chief of Clan Menzies, one of those Scots nobles who was hostage for King James I on his release after 14 years of captivity in England. The chief was a godly man, gave much land to the church, became a Cistercian monk at Melrose Abbey, and retired to the cave above his mansion house in his old age.
For centuries Weem was a Menzies town. The early name for the chief of the clan was the Laird of Weem and his seat the Place of Weem. As a settlement it is much older than Aberfeldy, its records going back to the 1200s. The Auld Kirk may date back to its first mention in the charters of 1235 but most of the building dates to the beginning of the sixteenth century. It is now the mausoleum of the chiefs of Clan Menzies and has accumulated many ancient relics and carved stones which were under threat, including the old cross that used to stand on the hillside by Cuthbert’s bath, and two of the carved crosses that once marked the boundaries of the gryph or sanctuary of Dull. Most exceptional is the Renaissance-carved memorial displaying the aristocratic antecedents of the female ancestors of the Menzies of 1616.
In 1797 The government brought in a Militia Act which allowed for the recruitment of able-bodied men into a militia to guard the country against invasion by Napoleon. The ordinary Scots had seen tens of thousands of their young men shipped overseas to fight the King’s enemies and they interpreted the Act as the government’s way of taking those still outside uniform, and objected. In some parts of the country, dragoons’ sabres made short work of the trouble but the authorities had no troops handy in Atholl and Breadalbane. There was no need. Since the ’45, the Highlands had been completely loyal and more peaceful than at any time in history.
It was the end of August. The harvest was safely in. People had time on their hands. Masked men took the parish registers which bore the names of those eligible for call up. Mobs formed in the straths to demand that the lairds signed documents stating that they disagreed with the Act and would not enforce it. After achieving this, the angry people did not quite know how to proceed. Fifteen thousand were believed to be milling around Strathtay, an army without officers. On Sunday at Dull after the afternoon sermon, a printed explanation of the workings of the Act were posted at the cross. Angus Cameron a carpenter from Weem came forward to explain it.
He had worked in Glasgow, read Thomas Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’, and been involved in radical societies and discussion groups. With the greatest reluctance he took charge. The huge crowds washed back and forth between Kenmore and Logierait. Authority had collapsed. King Cameron ruled Strathtay but the Socialist Revolution was not to start in Highland Perthshire. It was proposed that the crowd cross over to Blair and force the duke to sign their document. His Grace did what he had always done. He raised his tenantry and, with scythes and cudgels, they mustered to defend him. A 13 year-old ensign in the Perthshire Fencibles, sleeping over with a friend, described what happened to him. ‘I was in bed at a relative’s home when suddenly a dozen men rushed into the room in a most enraged state and insisted I get up and join them. They explained that we youngsters could throw stones with a string as David did to Goliath. However my friend came in and told them I was an officer in His Majesty’s Service and, wild as they were, they scurried away.’
The mob would did not storm the castle but returned to Strathtay where neither Cameron nor his lieutenants, travelling tailors John MacLagan and his two sons, could think what to do next, so they did nothing but wait for the retribution that they knew would surely follow.
One night, a fortnight later, a young officer and a few troopers trotted over the passes from Blair, knocked on Cameron’s door, and arrested him. They hired a coach from the Weem Inn, put their prisoner inside and trundled off towards Dunkeld, closely escorted by several thousand people intent on rescuing the prisoner. But they couldn’t decide quite how to do it and the convoy reached Perth at four o’clock in the afternoon with scarcely an incident to report.
King Cameron was taken to Edinburgh to be charged with sedition and riot. He was given bail and disappeared, never to be heard of again. Charges were brought against other prominent agitators - the school teacher in Strathtummel had died of his injuries at the hands of a rioter - but the worst punishment meted out was a year’s imprisonment, commuted when the prisoners agreed to join His Majesty’s Forces.
Everyone in Strathtay went back to work, probably spent a few days wondering what on earth they had thought they were doing, and the matter was never raised again.
The chiefs of Clan Menzies used to have their seat at Comrie Castle on the south bank of the river Lyon three miles west along the strath, but it was destroyed by fire in 1487. Enough remains to show that this was a highly attractive little building and would amply reward a deep-pocketed restoration.
The Menzies family were Normans who came to England with William the Conqueror. The first recorded chief was at the Court of King Alexander II by 1224. He became Chamberlain of Scotland and received grants of property on the north side of Loch Rannoch and in Strathtay. Throughout their history the chiefs were loyal to the government of Scotland and dutifully changed their religion and their politics accordingly. Many of their neighbours were not so law abiding and the Menzieses often suffered. The charters of the chief were burned when Neil Stewart of Garth torched the new castle at Weem in 1502, and so obscurity fogs the earliest history of the family.
In 1745, Sir Robert Menzies’s factor ignored his chief’s commands and raised the clan for the Jacobites. The Menzies regiment joined up with the Atholl Brigade and was annihilated, but Sir Robert succeeded in obtaining compensation for the damage to his mansion caused by the government garrison. Although Sir Robert was no Jacobite his wife was, and Prince Charles stayed two nights in February 1746 during the retreat that finished at Culloden. The last resident chief, Sir Neil Menzies, died in 1910 but his lugubrious image still stares down from the walls of many local houses. He supplied a foot-square engraving of himself to each of his tenants and, on rent day, they found he had billed them for it.
The castle was in a dire state when it was bought by the Clan Menzies Society in 1950 and it has been painstakingly restored. At its core is a fine Z-plan mansion built at a time when comfort was beginning to overtake the absolute priority of security for a gentleman’s residence. Although it has gunports, the castle was never seriously attacked or defended. It was taken by Alexander Robertson of Struan in the Rising of 1715 when its garrison was carousing at the inn in Weem.
To keep up with the Breadalbanes, a Gothic wing was added to the Castle in 1848. A Jacobean wing was demolished during the restorations. The castle is in excellent heart and its sparse interior furnishings allow the visitor to see how such houses were constructed and used.
The white house adjacent to the House of Menzies, an excellent coffee stop just along the road, is a typical example of a laird’s house of the eighteenth century. These are uncommon since most were razed and replaced by grand mansions, buried in the midst of Victorian and Edwardian extensions, or burned by government troops after the ’45.
The name means ‘a meadow or a dale’ and, although today there is little to repay the visitor for a diversion, this is one of the most historically interesting places in the locality. Its story begins with a Glen Lyon priest thirteen centuries ago when the Dark Ages were extremely murky. Wolves and boars flourished and the border between the two races of men, the Picts and the Gaels, was at Keltneyburn where clashes were frequent. It was a time of lice, fleas, dirt, disease, tall stories and barbarity; Columba had been dead a century and Christianity was still embattled with ancient druidical beliefs, primitive superstitions and animalistic practices.
The priest, Adamnan, must have been a remarkable man. Not only did he go on to become the senior Scots churchman as Abbot of Iona but he also wrote the first Scots biography - that of his predecessor St Columba - and an account of the holy places of Palestine De locis Sanctis, which was used as guide book for pilgrims throughout the middle ages. He was one of the greatest men of his age, a supporter of the rights of women, and is supposed to have became the first pensioner in the locality when he decided to spend his retirement back in Glen Lyon. He also managed to stop the plague in the glen and the hole in a rock where he placed his crozier can still be seen. On his death his followers carried his remains to Dunkeld to lie alongside Columba. En route at Dull, the wicker handle came adrift from his bier. This was taken as a sign, so a monastery was built on the spot.
But there is a problem with Celtic saints like Adamnan - in Gaelic, Eonan. These men were on the cusp of history and, on the best evidence available, it is unlikely that Adamnan or Cuthbert ever ventured to this area. Adamnan himself died at Iona. He is the patron saint of Glen Lyon and of Dull and his name is attached to places throughout Highland Perthshire - and to others from Kintyre to Aberdeenshire. Perhaps the Culdee missionaries from Iona dedicated their cells to their abbot and stopped the plague in his name. The stories that attached the names of individuals to such places are survivors of generations of wagging tongues round peat fires on cold winter nights.
The Appin of Dull was the land owned by the monastery. The other Appin - apthane = abbey lands - in the Western Highlands belonged to the religious community of Lismore. At Dull, the Gaels called it Menzies’s Appin to whom the abbot sold out in 1561 just before the Reformation. From the sale was retained the glebe land and the church of the parish which stretched from Amulree to Loch Tummel and Grandtully to Fortingall. The church is now owned by the Knight Templars, is kept locked, and does not look worth the trouble of finding the key. Round the corner is a broken stone cross that used to mark a boundary of the ancient sanctuary where malefactors were safe from the law or vengeful kin. Two others crosses were purloined as gate posts by David Campbell, the factor of the Garth and Menzies estates. The predicted fate befell him - eventually - when he and his horse toppled over the parapet of the old Wade bridge across the Keltneyburn, now behind his cousin General David Stewart’s statue. These two sanctuary stones are now in the Old Kirk at Weem.
The village is a later creation than Dull. It grew by the burn which once powered seven mills. The mills are now houses, but at the farm just west of the turn off to the village is the only surviving cruck house in Strathtay which can be viewed through the offices of the information centre in Aberfeldy. This was the standard style of habitation in the clachans in which the prosperous tenants of the chiefs and lairds might live. The crucks were the heavy curving timbers which supported the roof.
The earliest fireplaces were in the centre of the floor, the hearth a few stones and the smoke left to find its own exit in its own time. The fire was then moved against a wall and a clay and withie chimney was hung from the roof which did a slightly better job of smoke clearance. Two examples of this construction can be seen at the restored cottage at Camserney, and one example of the chimney’s final manifestation when it was built into a gable end. On this building heather thatch has replaced corrugated iron which was once red-rusting and ubiquitous throughout the Highlands.
The statue to David Stewart of Garth, erected by the Stewart Society in 1925, in the uniform of a Black Watch captain of 1800 depicts his spirit rather than his likeness. He was a small, short-sighted man who even wore his spectacles when posing for his portraits. Both his grandfathers fought at Culloden - one was killed - and Stewart’s boyhood was steeped in the stories and legends of the Highlands which he heard round firesides in households across his father’s four estates. The second son, he joined the army at the age of fourteen and ended his career a Major General. His troops loved him. On one occasion his weeping soldiers blocked the departure of his carriage when he was transferred to another unit. In consequence the move was rescinded. He was severely wounded at Alexandria in 1801 and again at the battle of Maida in Sicily in 1806.
His fame rests with his book, ‘Sketches of the Character, Institutions, and Customs of the Highlanders of Scotland’ which is a source book of all subsequent descriptions of Highlanders and Clans. This began as a history of the Black Watch whose records had been lost in a shipwreck. He then extended it to include the history of all the Highland regiments. That complete, he decided to describe the society which produced soldiers of such exceptional quality, and he finished with a ferocious broadside against the Clearances which he saw as destroying that society. He witnessed clearing as a young officer when his company was sent to maintain order in Ross-shire in 1792. He later wrote ‘On no subsequent occasion were my feelings so powerfully excited as on this.’
On behalf of the Highland Society of London he was the first to link a specific tartan to each clan when he wrote to all the chiefs asking for samples of their pattern to begin a register. Many had no idea and chose the prettiest of the myriad of tartans worn in some ancestral portrait. As lieutenant to Sir Walter Scott, Stewart played a large part in organising the Highland extravaganza laid on to greet King George IV on his visit to Edinburgh in 1822. He can thus be held largely responsible for the distinctive image of the kilted Highlander which is recognised as the symbol of Scotland world-wide.
The general fathered two children on his tenants - a modest tally for a laird before Victorian morality took hold - but in spite of pressure from his extensive range of friends and acquaintances he never married. In 1829 he was appointed to the post of governor of St Lucia but he died of fever a year after his arrival.
This grim little fortalice was probably built Alexander Stewart, earl of Buchan, who is better known to history as the Wolf of Badenoch. Son of the first Stewart king, Robert II, and grandson of Robert Bruce he was a law unto himself north of the Highland line and an uncomfortable man to have in any position of authority. So much so that the Gaels called his descendants ‘Children of the Accursed Whelp’ and there were plenty of them. David Stewart, he of the statue, estimated in 1820 that four thousand people in Atholl descended from the Wolf’s son who settled at the castle.
For a century the family were pillars of the community, slaughtering only the king’s enemies, until the time of Neil Gointe. A free translation of his name would be Neil the Bitter and Twisted. Soon after inheriting Garth he fell out with his neighbours, particularly Sir Robert Menzies who was charged by the king to keep order in Rannoch. But Neil protected the gangs of outlaws who preyed on the people and incited them to direct their assaults on Sir Robert and his dependents. Finally, in 1502, Neil and his henchmen attacked Castle Menzies, burnt it to the ground and pillaged Weem, Camserney, and other Menzies properties. Sir Robert was stuffed into the dungeon of Garth Castle and starved in order to encourage him to sign over to Neil the local estates that he coveted.
King James IV then came north to sort out the affair. Neil kept his head by surrendering his captive once he had extracted a document in which the prisoner forgave his captor. Having been deprived of control of much of his estates Neil’s later years are obscure but he survived into very ripe old age, dying in 1554. He was suspected of murdering his wife by dropping a rock on her head when she was down in the burn below the castle. Tradition has it that his last nine years after her death were spent in the dungeon of his own castle.
It is interesting to compare this, the oral tradition’s vilification of Neil, with documented history. The dispute was about land and Neil was supported by the Stewarts of both Grantully and Bonskeid. Three years after the burning of the Menzies stronghold, the king confirmed Neil in the lands he inherited. And the Menzies never did win possession. The earl of Huntly, married to Neil’s sister-in-law, became titular lord of the disputed estates but Neil retained control. His second wife was killed by a stone falling from above but the man responsible is named as Alexander Stewart and the use of ‘negligently’ in the contemporary report would, at worst, indicate a culpable homicide rather than murder. The tradition that Neil lived his last nine years in his own dungeon would seem to be a confusion with his ancestor the Wolf who built Garth Castle and did indeed spend a considerable time imprisoned by his royal father after the burning of Elgin cathedral. The Wolf himself did his penance and now lies in Dunkeld cathedral, his tomb topped by an effigy of himself in full armour.
Once fortifications would have covered the site of Garth Castle but now only the central keep remains. Brutally plain and functional, it is built of unhewn boulders, its height twenty metres, its two metre-thick walls containing the staircase. It sits on a promontory that juts out over the gorge containing the Keltney burn. The neck of the promontory was then broken which made the building virtually impregnable before the days of gunpowder and sufficient of a nuisance afterwards for Cromwell’s soldiers to render it unusable after Glencairn’s Rising in 1653. The castle remained a ruin for three hundred years but its inaccessibility and the size of the stones with which it is constructed preserved it from the fate of most of the little clachans which dotted Atholl. These have vanished, mined by Victorians to turn into drystone dykes, shooting lodges, barns, and paved yards.
The castle was restored in the 1950s although the architect, curiously, left it with a flat roof instead of the gables with which it had once been more elegantly endowed.
This ancient place of settlement lies within one of the most attractive little straths in the Highlands. Sheltered by the mass of Drummond Hill from the blasts off Loch Tay and from the north and west by the hills of Glen Lyon, it holds the full complement of prehistoric stones, cairns, monuments, hill forts, and tumuli. The village and church are the creations of shipping magnate and local MP Sir Donald Currie who bought most of the Vale in 1885 and rebuilt the church and the village to the designs of architect James MacLaren. The kirk holds one of the little bells of the old Celtic church. Another lies in the church at Innerwick, a third at Killin, and a fourth used to be at Struan but now resides in Perth Museum.
Although its age has fluctuated alarmingly, the yew in the churchyard is reputed to be the most ancient piece of vegetation in Europe. In 1800 the local minister aged it at a thousand years. It crept up to two thousand during the nineteenth century and then an eminent botanist declared its age at five thousand years. It is younger now - back down to a couple of thousand years. In fact the tree is undatable since the heart is long gone and no tree rings can be obtained. Its venerability may help to explain the strange legend of Fortingall being the birthplace of Pontius Pilate. Natives of the parish have committing the history and legends of their birth place to print for centuries and many of them were zealous antiquarians who were convinced that the impressive mediaeval fortifications in a field west of the village were a Roman camp. But not until the mid eighteen hundreds does the legend of Pilate appear.
One can almost hear the sermon - in Gaelic of course - in which the minister tried to link the minds of his sleepy congregation to the New Testament. Our wonderful tree was a seedling when the Romans were here in Fortingall and Pontius Pilate - the only Roman they would have heard of - was but a wee laddie. So when the Victorian researcher came round to admire the yew, a simple native told him that Pilate knew it as a wee laddie. And he would have been born at the Roman Camp. The myth still circulates and seems too agreeable to be ever dispelled. A modern writer has gone one further, suggesting that Christ himself was born in Fortingall - and was wearing a kilt at the crucifixion.
Recently crop marks have been observed much closer to the village and, although confirmation is still needed, they show signs of being Roman work. Or of an early monastic settlement. Or just a great big ditch.
Revisionism has taken place here as well. Over the centuries many tales have been woven about the dozen ‘forts’ scattered at strategic points through its thirty six miles. Fingalian, certainly, and probably the capital of Fingal himself from where he could send his troops to any point of Scotland should danger threaten. Excavation has shown that these were occupied by peaceful farmers.
The glen seems endless. Round one corner the mountains close in on the road and the river, round the next there is half a mile between them. Although there are few possible stopping places to appreciate them, the glen is full of legendary stones, hummocks and castles. Meggernie Castle, half way up, was built by the Campbells, occupied by them for one century and then by the Menzieses for two.
Now the glen seems wild and empty but once it was home to over a thousand folk and on one of the best trodden thoroughfares between the western Highlands and the east. And so busy a place is laden with tales of centuries of clan battles, of saints, of deeds of valour and of treachery.
Perhaps the most notorious resident was Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon. He was a gambler and a drunk. His debts cost him his estates and forced him, at the age of sixty in 1690, to join the army. The Highlands were in chaos. William of Orange was trying to impose his authority; ex-king James was trying to rally his support from exile in France. The Scottish magnates like Atholl, Breadalbane and Argyll were manoeuvring for power and influence with the new regime, retaining links with the old regime in case the revolution failed and using every possible means to damage their rivals. The Highland chiefs were doing the same with more violence and less subtlety. Not a cow north of Stirling was safe from thieves, often the Macdonalds of Glencoe. In the midst of this were government armies and Jacobite armies, usually plundering to survive and sometimes starving to death when the countryside could yield nothing. It was a time of cynicism, cruelty, avarice and dishonour.
The King’s Secretary Dalrymple hated the chiefs, being exasperated with their petty plottings and their inability to keep their word. With the intention of terrifying them into submission, he composed the document, signed by William, ordering the extirpation of the Glencoe Macdonalds whose chief, MacIain, had been late in swearing his oath of allegiance. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, the fatal orders were passed down the chain of command.
On February 1st 1692 Glenlyon and his company had been billeted in the snow-bound glen, a way of levying tax on people unable or unwilling to hand over cash. Campbell was a cousin of Lord Breadalbane and related to half the Atholl gentry. His niece was married to MacIain.
He and his men lived peacefully amongst the Macdonalds for eleven days. Then on 12th February he received his instructions. At 5am the following morning he was ‘ordered to fall upon the rabelle, the Macdonalds of Glencoe, and to putt all to the sword under seventy’. Glenlyon’s two subordinate officers refused to carry out the command; they were arrested and sent to Glasgow. Others amongst his men were reluctant and some warned the intended victims. But the killings began. Campbell himself bayonetted one bound prisoner and supervised the rest of the murders ‘in frozen despair’. Perhaps 45 were killed, including two children under five. About the same number died of exposure fleeing over the mountains from the butchery but the majority took shelter with their neighbours - particularly the Stewarts of nearby Fasnacloich and, the Macdonalds assert, the family of Campbell of Airds at Castle Stalker. Glenlyon himself displayed drunken remorse round the alehouses of Edinburgh until he was posted to Flanders to avoid the subsequent enquiry where he died in 1696. Mythology claims that the massacre was Campbell against Macdonald but this is untrue. It was the government trying to crush the unruly clans.
John Campbell, Robert’s son, inherited a truncated estate through his mother at the mouth of the glen with its mansion house at the edge of Fortingall. The family was never typical of its clan in its politics. A soldier by profession, John was a Jacobite who brought out his tenants for King James in the Rising of 1715 and afterwards fled to France, returning to Fortingall by 1730. His eldest son was with the Black Watch on the Continent during the ’45 Rising, so Archie Roy, a fifteen year-old younger son, commanded the men of the estate in the rebel army and was halfheartedly chased round the glen by his soldier sibling after Culloden.
This eldest son, known as the Black Colonel, stayed in the army. In America shortly before the Revolution, he was in command of a firing squad. The condemned marine was reprieved but Campbell was ordered to delay announcing the pardon until the prisoner was on his knees, blindfolded, in front of the execution party. Taking the reprieve from his pocket Campbell inadvertently pulled out his handkerchief which was the signal to the squad. They shot the prisoner. The colonel, understandably aghast, clapped his hand to his forehead and exclaimed ‘The curse of God and of Glencoe is here: I am a ruined man.’
The last Campbell laird of Glenlyon was a doctor, much loved and respected in the locality, who died in 1805.
From the ’45 Rising until now seven generations have passed. Mankind was living in Strathtay for two hundred generations before records begin. Of those lives we know virtually nothing. The double stone circle of Mary’s Croft, the most impressive such monument on the Scottish mainland, is their most obvious legacy in the strath. The Gaels called this place Stucis meaning stones, and the farm is still called Stix.
All that can be said about this structure is that it was built as a place of ritual and it moved Robert Burns to pray in the midst of the circle when he passed through. Other smaller standing stone monuments exist at Fortingall, in the Appin of Dull, at Grantully, and the memory of others can be deduced from some place names. In addition dozens of stones incised with cups and rings are scattered across these hills whose purpose or meaning is also unknown although they are generally placed at the boundaries of tillable land. The excavated tumuli produce earthenware urns containing cremated human remains, as did the ground beneath some standing stones.
Much of what is now called Breadalbane used to be in Atholl but the incoming Campbells of Glenorchy took the name as the title of their earldom. They seem to have influenced William Stobie who produced a map of Perthshire in 1783. In it the word ‘Breadalbane‘ is writ large over both sides of Loch Tay, most of which was part of Atholl. Someone must have complained since, in later editions of the map, Breadalbane was kept very firmly on the south side of the loch. But the precedent had been set and the district name crept east and north as the family acquired land. In 1823, Atholl began east of the confluence of the Lyon and the Tay. Now even Aberfeldy considers itself to be in Breadalbane.
For nearly five centuries Loch Tay was the private pond of one of the most powerful - and terrifying - families in Scotland. Originating from Kilchurn castle on Loch Awe, the Campbells of Glenorchy, later earls and marquises of Breadalbane, had the power of life and death over everyone in their realm. They bought, parleyed, plotted, married and murdered their way into half a million acres stretching from Aberfeldy to the Atlantic.
In 1432 Black Colin obtained Glenorchy, between Killin and Tyndrum, from his father. By his death in 1475, he had obtained control of both ends of Loch Tay as well as bits in between. His son built the castle at Finlarig near Killin with its gallows tree and beheading pit before being killed at the battle of Flodden. The sixth laird, Grey Colin, was fostered by the chief of the MacGregors but, a few years after becoming laird, he forced the clan off their lands and out of their castle at Balloch where Taymouth now stands. Colin set himself up there at the eastern edge of his properties. His intention was continue his progress towards the North Sea but he was thwarted by Clan Donnachaidh and the Stewarts who owed allegiance to the earls and dukes of Atholl, aristocrats as grand and as ruthless as himself, against whose lands he now abutted. They had even more swords at their backs than the Campbells.
Amongst those who lost their lands to this branch of the Campbell clan were the Fletchers, MacNabs, Dewars and, above all, the MacGregors. The latter had been the most powerful clan along the loch and were understandably miffed at being ousted but the Campbells made it their business to harry surviving clansmen and women wherever they were to be found. They even had a pack of hounds said to have been suckled by a MacGregor woman so that they would scent only MacGregors and hunt them down. Without land the clan was forced to live by banditry until eventually the very name was extirpated and survivors changed their names to, for example, Drummond, Murray or Anderson and thus created enormous confusion to modern genealogists.
Black Duncan of the Cowl, the 7th laird, plotted to take over the lands of his chief the earl of Argyll and was party to the murder of the earl of Moray in 1592. He was accused of trafficking with witches and wizards to obtain his evil ends. Then the nation was riven by strife and rebellions during which the the great men of the families of Argyll, Atholl and Campbell of Breadalbane jockeyed for power and position.
Those who suffered were their people. In 1639, at the very beginning of the civil wars, Breadalbane and Argyll supported Presbyterianism against the Episcopalianism of Charles 1. An army from Loch Tayside confronted the Athollmen across the river Lyon a couple of miles from Taymouth. The earl of Atholl was tricked and captured whilst his followers were beaten in battle at the top of the Pass over to Strathtummel.
Revenge came in 1645. The marquis of Montrose had a royalist army consisting of the Athollmen and the ferocious Irish Macdonalds under Alastair McColla who had already burned his way across Argyll. Breadalbane was on high alert in face of McColla’s men making raids of Loch Tayside across the Lyon. To quote the minister of Kenmore, William Gillies, ‘In December Montrose himself with his whole host descended upon Breadalbane like a whirlwind. Macdonalds, MacGregors, MacNabs and others were let loose upon the countryside. They killed all the men found with arms, they burned every house, destroyed the corn stacks, and drove away the cattle. Even the kirk at Kenmore did not escape. Its door was broken and the basin for baptism stolen. As the Royalist army swept along both sides of the loch, it left a trail of desolation behind it.’
The same thing took place a generation later. The marquis of Argyll supported Monmouth’s rebellion against James VII. In 1685, the Athollmen were dispatched to beat up Inveraray. On their way, they burned their way down both sides of the loch. Once again the widows and orphans wailed and were saddled with the job of feeding themselves without a husband.
John Campbell, the next laird, was the first earl of Breadalbane. He was described by a contemporary as being cunning as a fox, wise a serpent, but as slippery as an eel. In 1691, he persuaded the government to give him £12,000 that he would distribute round the Highlands to keep them peaceful. Asked four years later what he had done with it, he replied ‘The money is spent, the Highlands are quiet, and this is the only way of accounting among friends’. He was unjustly implicated in the Massacre of Glencoe but, as an old man, remade his reputation in the Highlands with his support for the Rising of 1715. His successor surprisingly employed Rob Roy to look after his estates in Argyllshire and worked hard to repair the damage to his lands on Loch Tay caused by the civil wars. The family were opposed to Bonnie Prince Charlie and, when the Jacobites sent the Fiery Cross round the loch - the last time this ancient method of raising men was used - the response was negligible. The runner did the round trip in three hours.
This spectacular Gothic edifice is one of the grandest buildings in Scotland. Most was completed in 1807 by the first marquis and his successor added the west wing in time for Queen Victoria’s visit in 1842. In 1819, 1238 Breadalbane tenants paraded dressed as pantomime Highland warriors to greet Prince Leopold, later King of the Belgians. They mustered again to welcome Victoria and her husband. The royal couple, who processed down the loch in a fleet of barges watched by thousands of spectators, were so enraptured by the beauties of the Highlands and the mighty thighs of the kilted Highlanders who danced for them at Taymouth and Blair that they bought Balmoral.
On the Queen’s visit, the marquis was rather upset to find only 200 tenants answering his summons to come and play soldier rather than the multitudes of twenty years earlier. It was explained to him that they had gone, replaced on his instruction by sheep which yielded a better income for him than the rents of the people. The marquis cleared Glen Quaich just over the crest of the ridge to the south, both sides of the loch and behind Drummond Hill. Some people left for the factories of Glasgow, others emigrated to America and Australia. Now this country and the hills surrounding it are scattered with scores of sad ruins marking the little settlements from which they were expelled.
The Breadalbanes, brought down by extravagance and gambling debts, sold most of the estate in 1922 and the last fragments in 1948. The earldom is now dormant, with a couple of enterprising Campbells trying to claim it. Their elephantine seat has since been a hotel, a school, a hospital, and government establishment. The castle grounds are open to the public and, aside from the golf course, have been largely neglected for the last century. As a result the unspoilt ghost of the eighteenth and nineteenth century landscaped gardens have been preserved and the rides and formal walks are now bordered by massive and ancient trees.
This, Scotland’s sixth biggest loch, covers six and half thousand acres in its 14 miles between Kenmore and Killin. For thousands of years this water was a critical link on the main highway east and west across the centre of Scotland. Roads did not exist. Everything was moved on the back of a pack pony - or by water. Early man used dugout canoes. Later rowing boats and sailing craft ferried men and beasts over the loch and its surface was dotted with fishing boats chasing the teeming salmon and trout. In the 19th century the Loch Tay Steam Boat company was set up to link Loch Tayside with the Oban - Callendar railway allowing the export of livestock and the import of coal and lime to sweeten these upland soils. The last steam boat was broken up in 1950 and the dozen or so jetties which once bustled with activity have rotted away. Now the loch is at its quietest and most tranquil since history began.
The loch has frozen over only twice in recorded history - in 1771 and 1785. On that last occasion two men crossed the ice, taking the precaution of pushing a boat ahead of them. Its east-west axis means that storms coming in from the Atlantic can whip up high waves. There is an inch a year less rain for every mile between Killin and Aberfeldy. On a calm day in 1784, the natives were alarmed to see the waters at the east end of the loch drain backwards, emptying the bay at Kenmore and making the river flow back into the loch. Then the water came rushing back in a great wave and continued to slop back and forwards for several hours. Just over the hill is the geological fault line at Comrie which, although quiet for the last half century, used to regularly rattle windows and the agitation of the water was probably connected with this although at the time the tremor was believed to emanate from a string of earthquakes that hit Portugal.
Throughout prehistory the Tay was far more important as a thoroughfare than any path or track. In Loch Tay as on scores of other lochs throughout the country people built round, reed-thatched habitations on stilts out in the water. Rebuilt on the same spot time and again - some right up into the sixteenth century - many now appear as little islands in our lochs. Loch Tay had eighteen such crannogs
Archeology on land is often the study of imperishable material - pot shards, stones, and non-ferrous metal. The mud and water of the loch has preserved much more - textiles, foodstuffs, wooden boats and implements. From these a picture of the way of life of some of these prehistoric people of the Highlands can be understood as never before.
The crannogs were used to house livestock, mainly sheep, as well as their owners. A wooden causeway led to them from shore which would have been barred at night to keep out wolves. These were a serious hazard, considered more of a pest than thieves. In the seventeenth century the last Perthshire wolf was said to have been killed by a Mrs Robertson who bopped it on the head with a wooden potato masher when it entered her cottage to investigate the cooking pot over her fire. Mullinavadie - the Wolf’s Mill - just north of Dunalastair in Strathtummel marks the spot.
The crannog dwellers were peaceful, pastoral people whose houses could not have been surpassed for airy comfort in summer and can provide a snug haven in winter. Floating above the loch, their sanitary arrangements would not be improved upon for two millennia. The purpose of the magnificent crannog built at Croft na Caber is to raise money so that the excavations in Loch Tay can continue to multiply the amount known about these early peoples.
The largest crannog on the loch, the Isle of the Tay by Kenmore, has a causeway just beneath the surface of the water leading to the north shore. Alexander I is said to have built a lodge on it for use when he came for the salmon fishing and in 1122 his queen Sybilla died and was buried there. The king gave it to the abbey at Scone as a priory and the monks eventually handed it over to nuns who used it until the Reformation. Once a year the nuns left their island to visit the market at Kenmore. They landed at Portbane, the port of the women, alongside Croft na Caber. Although the island is near the opposite shore, the river was unbridged and required a ferry to cross it. Port Bane meant a single boat trip rather than two, although the nuns were faced with a longer walk to Kenmore.
When the Campbells arrived they had to mark time for a generation or two before they grabbed Taymouth so they built their first house on this island. Montrose attacked it on his way by and was repulsed. Cromwellian soldiers captured and destroyed it as they did to every other castle in the area that they were not using as a garrison.
Kenmore was built to house the tradesmen and estate workers who served the castle. The bridge was thrown across the river in 1774. £1000 was given towards the cost by the Commissioners of the Forfeited Estates.
BEN LAWERS AND DRUMMOND HILL
The north side of the loch is dominated by Ben Lawers. At 3,984 feet, it is Perthshire’s tallest mountain but a maddening 16 feet short of joining the expanding number of Scottish peaks - now nine - over 4,000 feet. It was up there with them once. In the nineteenth century a patriotic son of Perthshire, Malcolm Ferguson, raised a 16 foot-high cairn on the peak. But the frost and winter blizzards that sweep the high tops between here and Loch Rannoch have ground off all but a small scatter of stones. Lawers is a remarkable hill, in summer only a bracing walk to climb. Its complex Alpine flora, unique in Scotland, only just survived the Victorian plant collectors. On a clear day from its summit you can see Arthur’s Seat to the east and Ailsa Craig off Ayrshire to the west and, of course, Ben Nevis.
In the last few summers, Glasgow University archeologists have been exploring the mountain and have discovered the remains of scores of little houses, ranging from the bronze age to the nineteenth century and reaching above the 3,000 foot contour line. Limestone underlies much of the surrounds of Loch Tay which creates sweet grass facing south to the sun.
Drummond Hill - Drummond comes from the Gaelic dromainn which means a ridge - used to have little farms upon it but was planted by the Breadalbanes in 1754 and was the first planned forestry plantation in Scotland. In the nineteenth century the marquis reintroduced the capercaillie to Drummond Hill. There are still a few of these turkey-size grouse around but they are trembling on the verge of extinction once again since, rather than fly over deer fences, they will try to fly through them with deleterious results. This same marquis stocked the lands round Taymouth with buffaloes, zebras and wildebeest and then invited his guests to shoot them. A buffalo skull with a brace of bullet holes in its head has surfaced from the Tay within the last decade.
‘Cuimhnichibh na Doine o’n d’thainig sibh’ (Remember the men from whom you have come) is the Gaelic tag carved on the statue of David Stewart at Keltneyburn. The lives of the many thousands of people whose remains fill the little burial grounds scattered across this, their country, were hard and dangerous compared with ours but filled with a rich culture of poetry, music and a spirituality that flourished here for a thousand years. Few descendants of those countless generations are left in these straths and even fewer retain the link to the land. But, just as their landscape was created by their Pictish predecessors, so the Gaels have bequeathed theirs to us. We should honour them and remember them. Perhaps our successors will accord us the same recognition.
Around Aberfeldy. (Breadalbane Heritage Society 1998)
Atholl, duke of, Chronicles of the Atholl and Tullibardine Families. (Edinburgh 1908)
Mackay, Norman D., Aberfeldy Past & Present. (Aberfeldy 1955)
Gillies William A., In Famed Breadalbane. (Perth 1938)
Campbell, Duncan, Book of Garth & Fortingall. (Inverness 1888)
Campbell, Duncan, The Lairds of Glenlyon. (Perth 1886)
Fraser, Duncan, Highland Perthshire. (Montrose 1969)
Grant, I.F., Highland Folk Ways. (London 1961)
Haldane A.R.B., The Drove Roads of Scotland. (Edinburgh 1952)
Hopkins, Paul, Glencoe and the End of the Highland War. (Edinburgh 1986)
Irvine Robertson, James, Atholl in the Rebellion of 1745. (Aberfeldy 1994)
Irvine Robertson, James, The Lady of Kynachan. (Bantam, London, 1995)
Irvine Robertson, James, The First Highlander, David Stewart of Garth. (East Linton 1998)
Kennedy, James, Folklore and Reminiscences of Strathtay and Grandtully. (Perth 1927)
Kerr, John, Life in the Atholl Glens. (Perth 1993) and many other local titles.
Liddell, Colin, Pitlochry, Heritage of a Highland District. (Perth 1993)
Rogers, Charles, Social Life in Scotland from Early to Recent Times. (Edinburgh 1884)
Stewart, Alexander, A Highland Parish. (Glasgow 1928)
Stewart, Charles Poyntz, Memorials of the Stewarts of Fothergill. (Edinburgh 1879)
Stewart, Major Gen David of Garth, Sketches of the Highlanders. (Edinburgh 1822)
Stewart, Elizabeth, Dunkeld, an Ancient City. (Dunkeld 1926)
Clan Donnachaidh Annuals
The Stewarts, Journals of the Stewart Society
See James's web site for a list of his books at http://jamesirvinerobertson.co.uk/index.html