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Historical and Traditional Sketches of Highland Families and of the Highlands
Donald Gruimach, The Black-Isle Cattle-Lifter


For the last two centuries there has not, perhaps, been a more notorious cattle-lifter than Donald Gruimach. From his very grim and ferocious appearance he was better known by the soubriquet of "Gruimach." Indeed, Donald was the terror of the whole country, especially the Black Isle, to which his depredations were chiefly confined, and whose lairds he most unsparingly plundered of their best cattle and sheep. He resided near Tarradale, and never walked abroad without his bitac (dirk) and skian dhu. His courage was as reckless, as his presence of mind was astonishing, and being thoroughly acquainted with the locale of the scene of his operations, (for there was not a corner or crevice in the whole country with which he was not familiar), it rendered it no easy task to bring home any charge to him. And although many were quite conscious that he, and he alone, was the person who stole their cattle and sheep—still they were afraid to lay such an action to the credit of this renowned free-booter. However, M’Homais, the Laird of Applecross, whose sheep now and then were stolen from off his estate of Highfield, (which was then, and for many years after, the property of the Applecross family), determined to make a strict and thorough investigation respecting his stolen property, and Donald’s fame reaching his ears, it naturally occurred to him that there was none so likely to harass him as Donald Gruimach; consequently he dispatched twelve strong able-bodied men to Donald’s bothy on the evening of the day on which one of his best wedders disappeared. Donald, however, happened to be about the door, and as the guilty mind is always timorous and apprehensive of coming evil, he gave a cautious look around his residence, then with the keen and penetrating glance of the eagle, scanned the face of the country, where he espied at a distance the men rapidly approaching him. He saw portending danger in their movements, and there being no time to lose in conjecture as to the purport of their mission, he instantly entered his hut, seized the sheep and firmly bound it with thongs,--then laid it in a large cradle, and covering it over with a piece of blanket, he seated himself beside it, and appeared tenderly engaged in rocking the supposed child, humming at the same time, "Baloo, baloo, mo leanaibh"!! while the men made their entrance at the door. One of them accosted Donald by asking, "Where is the wedder you have taken to-day from Highfield?" He answered them quite seriously, and not the least disconcerted, "May I eat him that’s in the cradle, if I took it." They did not question Donald further, or examine the contents of the cradle, by which he swore so fervently, but returned much mortified, without taking either sheep or Donald; and it may easily be supposed that he was but too happy when he saw them make their exit, and get so easily out of this uncomfortable dilemma. But this narrow escape from detection had no effect on Donald, neither did it prevent his levying contributions on those in the neighbourhood of his abode, for sometime thereafter he had the hardihood to take one of Kilcoy’s best oxen from the Mains; but whether it was owing to his being always so well armed, or that the proof against him was considered inadequate to ensure a conviction, there was no effort at the time made to take him into custody—he was, therefore, for some time suffered to roam undisturbed over the country, committing several other depredations.

Kilcoy, however, did not forget the loss of his good ox, but it availed not; he could not fall on any scheme to entrap the wary thief. After running over in his mind several stratagems, which were no sooner concocted than dispelled, he at last thought on the following. Being told that Donald was in the vicinity of the Castle, he went, out, in order, if possible, to meet or see him, and was not long in discovering the object of his search. Donald seeing Kilcoy approach him unaccompanied, stood, for indeed he was so powerful that he would not show his back to the four strongest men in the country. Kilcoy told him he had an important letter to send to the Sheriff at Fortrose, which required urgent attention, and that if he would convey it, he would get a shilling for his trouble, which in these times, was considered no bad remuneration for the distance he had to travel. Donald hesitated, but at last consented to go. Kilcoy then immediately went and wrote the necessary letter to the Sheriff, the purport of which was, that the bearer was a most notorious stealer of cattle and sheep, and that it would be doing the greatest service to the country at large, if he (the Sheriff,) on receipt would safely secure Donald in jail, as shortly charges would be brought against him, which would be proved to his satisfaction; as himself and many of his neighbours around him, suffered severely from the depredations of this redoubtable cattle-lifter. Donald could neither read nor write; however, he did not proceed far on his way, wrapt in meditation, his own circumstances haunting his mind, and probably contemplating the reckless career of his past life, when he began to examine and look very minutely into the letter, when lo! he imagined that in it he discovered the horns of Kilcoy’s brown ox. It then occurred to him that it was for the purpose of having himself apprehended, and handed over to the Sheriff, that he was despatched with the letter, which was meant to have effected this object. He immediately retraced his steps, and the first person he met was the Laird himself, who, no doubt, was previously overjoyed at the thought of ridding himself of such a formidable neighbour as Donald Gruimach. But in this the Laird of Kilcoy was sadly disappointed, who, addressing Donald, asked him, "How was it that he returned so soon?" Donald’s mind was not at rest, and he answered the Laird, "Back! it is no wonder that I am back; did I not see the very horns of the brown ox in that letter as distinct as possibly could be?" then, throwing the ominous letter at Kilcoy’s feet, fled with the swiftness of the roe to his hiding place, in order to elude the search of any who might be sent in pursuit of him.

Crime may be carried on unchallenged for a time, but a day of reckoning will come, when justice will prevail, and so it happened with Donald. He was seized for stealing a stot from a widow who lived on the estate of Tulloch—Bayne being then the proprietor, who warmly interested himself in the poor woman’s loss. Donald was lodged in Dingwall jail, and while he lay there, the widow visited him daily, furnishing him with the best meat she could procure, in order if possible, by her kindness, to extract some information from him, by which she could recover her favourite stot; he always promised to tell her where the stot was, and thereby kept her in continual suspense. In due time he was tried and sentenced to be executed. On the day of his execution, and while he stood on the platform, the poor woman cried out to him, "will you not tell me now where is my stot?" But he answered, "I have more to think of at present than you or your stot." While he thus stood he was anxiously and impatiently looking towards the west, as he expected a strong party of the clan Fraser to make their appearance and effect a rescue. They actually left their homes for that purpose, and came the length of Ord, but having been met there by a number of the Mackenzies as a deputation from Brahan Castle, the latter reasoned with them on the necessity and justice of freeing the country of such a notorious individual as Donald Gruimach, and prevailed on the Frasers to return, without proceeding farther to rescue him from the scaffold, a doom which he so justly merited. Donald was never known to commit any encroachment on the Lovat estates, and it was supposed that it was on this account the Frasers favoured him so much. One of his most impregnable hiding places was on the estate of Lovat, in Glenstrathfarar, and it was farther conjectured that he was a scion of that clan.


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