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Glen Albyne
Chapter I —'Twixt Spean and Gairlochy


THE West Highland Railway, we are told, passes through a country torn to tatters by inland lochs and arms of the sea—"the most amphibious country," as the Irishman put it, "ever seen with the naked eye." It is no less true that the branch line from Spean Bridge to Fort-Augustus runs through a district second to none in Scotland for the grandeur of its scenery, and teeming with sites redolent of historic and romantic interest.

Starting from Spean in the heart of Far Lochaber, the line passes through the lands of Keppoch Macdonalds, and skirting the territories of Loch Eil, traverses a part of the famous Glengarry country till it reaches in the ancient fortress of Fort-Augustus the extreme western outpost of the Lovat property, a territory wrangled over, fought for, and successively possessed by Macdonalds, Grants and Frasers, and now a favourite resort of health-seeker, fisher and sportsman.

Leaving Spean Bridge, where there is a good hotel with comfortable accommodation and excellent fishing, the line bends towards the north, crosses the bridge, and makes its way along the eastern bank of the river. Shortly after crossing the Bridge we see just on the opposite side of the river a curiously shaped hollow known as "Sloc an fhamhair," or the giant's hole. It is a large pit hollowed out by one of the streams which dash down the hillside, and so deep that the sun hardly ever penetrates its inmost recesses. On one side of this cavern, corbelled out from the face of the overhanging cliff is a large rock resembling a huge bed. Tradition has it that this was the giant's resting place. Even Highland seanachies have been unable to trace the exact genealogy of this worthy; but if he belongs to that mythical race of beings so dear to the heart of the Highlander and of all primitive races, spirits of a more reliable nature have inhabited this cave within recent years.

Here it was that a limb of the law surprised a gang of smugglers engaged in illicit distilling. The guager (Anglice, exciseman) in question was accustomed to parade the country in full Highland costume with a great ash-plant in his hand, and on this night, full of his own importance, he stealthily made his way to the entrance of the cavern. But long before he reached the place, the smugglers' scouts had given the alarm, and as the intruder entered the "giant's hole" a sack was skilfully flung over his head, and for many a long day he had reason to regret that the kilt afforded such admirable facilities for administering condign punishment. The distillers rolled him into the burn, and he returned to his home a wetter and wiser man, cursing the wild caterans of Lochaber who in the nineteenth century paid so little regard to the laws of Queen Victoria. To this day he is ignorant of the.names of his assailants.

On another occasion he was scarcely more successful. Having surprised the smugglers in their hut he found a puncheon of illicit whisky standing in the middle of the room. Not in the least taken aback, the distillers, knowing his convivial habits, suggested that they should pledge the new year in a bumper of their best spirits. Nothing loth, the guager accepted the proposal, but fearing some 11 plant," took his seat upon the great cask of whisky. When an hour later he rolled off his throne to take possession of the prize, the faithless cask was dry—and the "barley bree" already far away and safe in hiding where the smugglers alone could find it. An unseen member of the band had secretly tapped the cask and drawn the spirit off through the wall of the hut while the ingenuous exciseman drank and made merry.

A few yards past the "giant's hole," but higher up the hill, lies a whitewashed keeper's house, nestling in a grove of Scotch firs. At the back of this house there is a deep pool in the soft peat moss, now partially filled in, but still known as "Poll nan con," the dogs' pool. Here it was that the last of the Macgregors, who had fled to Lochaber for safety and who were being tracked down by sleuth-hounds, threw their foes off the scent by drowning the dogs in this little loch.

The Clan Gregor, as is well known in Highland history, was for centuries persecuted by the Campbells, a name for ever odious in the Highlands. As early as the reign of David II., the Campbells managed to procure a legal title to the Macgregor territory. When the Macgregors, after the manner of simple mountaineers, defended their land with claymore and dirk, without regard to the quibbles of the law, their wily opponents obtained writs of the crown against them, so that, as Mr. Skene says, from 1502 "the history of the Macgregors consists of a mere list of acts of Privy Council by which commissions are granted to pursue the clan with fire and sword, and of various atrocities which a state of desperation, the natural result of these measures, as well as a deep spirit of vengeance against both the framers and the executors of them, frequently led the clan to commit." Finally they were completely proscribed, obliged under pain of death to change their name, forbidden to carry any weapon save a knife without a point to cut their food, or to meet together in greater number than four at a time, and the execution of these commands was entrusted to their hereditary foes the Campbells. These laws remained in force till little more than a century ago, when they were repealed by the Parliament of 1784. In spite of all the efforts of their foes, strong bands of Macgregors held out in the high mountains and rocky fastnesses, and were able to muster a considerable force both in 1715 and 1745. Many are the tales of generosity and courage on the part of the persecuted people, and all through they show to far greater advantage than their treacherous and cunning enemies.

One well-known tale which brings the Macgregors before us in a very honourable light may be worth recording here. The son of Macgregor of Glen Strae out hunting one day fell in with the young laird of Lamont and a companion travelling towards Inverlochy. They passed the day together and in the evening sat down to dinner. During the course of the meal a quarrel arose, dirks were drawn, and young Macgregor was slain. Lamont at once leapt out of the room and fled, closely pursued by some of the slain man's retainers. Fleet of foot he outstripped his foes, and by chance ran for protection to the very house of Glen Strae where young Macgregor's father dwelt. Without stating whom he had slain, Lamont implored Glen Strae's assistance. At once the old chief passed his word to protect him as far as in him lay. Almost directly after up rushed the members of the clan in hot pursuit, and angrily cried out for the murderer to be delivered up to them in atonement for the blood he had shed. But the brave old chief on learning whom he had captured, cried out, "Not a hair of his head shall be touched while he is under my roof-tree. Glen Strae has pledged his honour, and never shall it be said that a Macgregor went back on his word." Later the chief himself secretly escorted the youth out of the Macgregor country to his own land, and bidding him farewell said, "Lamont, you are now safe upon your own ground. I cannot and will not protect you further. Keep away from my people, and may God forgive you for what you have done! " Lamont was not ungrateful, and shortly afterwards when Glen Strae with his family was proscribed, destitute, and a wanderer, the young man received them into his house and for a time protected them from their enemies. But the Philistines were too strong, and the honest o!d chief was treacherously 11 done to death" by Argyle, and hanged at the Market Cross in Edinburgh.

The little band who had fled to Lochaber, and who had for a time eluded pursuit by drowning the dogs as we said above, lived in a cave at the back of Tir na Dris, about a mile from Spean Bridge. They were finally hunted down by their relentless foes, and a clump of trees marks the spot where the three made their last gallant stand. Some years ago a gentleman of the district, anxious to prove the truth of the tradition, dug up the grave and found the three skeletons. He then removed them to the banks of the burn on the east side of Tir na Dris, about a hundred yards below where the bridge on the high road crosses the stream. Three fir trees—the badge of the clan--mark the spot where they now lie buried.

As the train swings round the next corner of the run we catch a glimpse of High Bridge, which spans the river with a graceful arch. It connects the section of the old military road between Port-Augustus and Blackletter with that which runs on to Fort-William, and a tablet in the centre of the arch commemorates its completion by Marshal Wade in 1736. This bridge is one of the forty that the famous General built during the construction of the two hundred miles of road that traverse the country from Dunkeld to Fort-William. It is perhaps one of the most notable of all his bridges, rising as it does to a height of almost one hundred feet above the stream beneath---a remarkable achievement for the times and circumstances under which it was accomplished. The Spean, which in summer seems little more than a mountain stream, when swollen by winter rains boils and roars beneath the bridge, flinging tongues of foam far up on to the masonry and enveloping the whole in a cloud of spray.

It was here that an exciting incident took place in 1745, which had much to do with the rising of the loyal clans for Prince Charlie, and the Prince's subsequent adventures. Charles Edward Stuart had landed on the west coast some time before, with the intention of winning back for himself and his descendants the kingdom from which he had been ousted by the Hanoverians. But the enterprise hung fire ; many of those favourably inclined towards the expedition deeming the preparations inadequate and the time inopportune. The following incident decided the wavering chiefs and brought on a general rising of the clans. The matter may perhaps be best described in the words of Robert Chambers, the historian of the '45.

"The governor of Fort-Augustus (a military post, at the distance of forty or fifty miles from Charles's landing-place) concluding, from reports he heard, that the Moidart people were hatching some mischief, thought proper, on the 16th of August, to dispatch two companies of the Scots Royals to Fort-William, as a reinforcement to awe that rebellious district. The distance between the two forts is twenty-eight miles, and the road runs chiefly along the edge of a mountain, which forms one side of the Great Glen, having the sheer height of the hill on one side, and the long narrow lakes, out of which the Caledonian Canal has since-been formed, on the other. The men were newly raised, and, besides being inexperienced in military affairs, were unused to the alarming circumstances of an expedition in the Highlands. When they had travelled twenty out of the eight-and-twenty miles, and were approaching High Bridge, a lofty arch over a mountain torrent, they were surprised to hear the sound of a bagpipe, and to discover the appearance of a large party of Highlanders, who were already in possession of the Bridge. The object of their alarm was in reality a band of only ten or twelve Macdonalds of Keppoch's clan ; but by skipping and leaping about, displaying their swords and firelocks, and by holding out their plaids between each other, they contrived to make's very formidable appearance. Capt. (afterwards General) Scott, who commanded the two companies, ordered an immediate halt, and sent forward a sergeant with his own servant to reconnoitre. These two persons no sooner approached the bridge, than two nimble Highlanders darted out and seized them. Ignorant of the number of the Highlanders, and knowing he was in a disaffected part of the country, Captain Scott thought it would be better to retreat than enter into hostilities. Accordingly, he ordered his men to face about, and march back again. The Highlanders did not follow immediately, lest they should expose the smallness of their number, but permitted the soldiers to get two miles away (the ground being so far plain and open) before leaving the post. As soon as the retreating party had passed the west end of Loch Lochy, and were entering upon the narrow road between the lake and the hill, out darted the mountaineers, and ascending the rocky precipices above the road, where there was shelter from both bush and stone, began to fire down upon the soldiers, who only retreated with the greater expedition.

"The party of Macdonalds who attempted this daring exploit was commanded by Macdonald of Tiendrish, who, having early observed the march of the soldiers, had sent expresses to Locheil and Keppoch, whose houses were only a few miles distant on both sides of High Bridge, for supplies of men. They did not arrive in time, but he resolved to attack the party with the few men he had ; and he had thus far succeeded, when the noise of his pieces causing friends in all quarters to fly to arms, he now found himself at the head of a party almost sufficient to encounter the two companies in the open field."

When Captain Scott reached the east end of Loch Lochy, wishing to avoid the little village of Laggan Achadrum, where knots of Highlanders had gathered, and who, he was afraid, might dispute his passage, he turned aside from the road, crossed the neck of land between Loch Lochy and Loch Oich, and forming his men into a square, made towards Invergarry—the seat of M'Donell of Glengarry—intending to take possession of the castle. This move only increased his difficulties. By this time Keppoch, who had overtaken him by a rapid march across the hill, swept down upon the right flank of the troop, while a small band of Kennedys from Glengarry appeared in front and barred the way. At once the Highlanders began a vigorous attack, whilst the soldiers, cowed and dispirited, scarcely dared to offer any resistance. By the first volley four of the military were killed and several wounded, including Captain Scott himself, who received a bullet in the shoulder. Then Keppoch, anxious to avoid further bloodshed, came forward sword in hand and called upon the Captain to surrender, pointing out that now the blood of the clansmen was up, and any further resistance would be a signal for the force to be cut in pieces. The soldiers had no alternative but to lay down their arms, and scarcely had they done so when Locheil arrived with a body of Camerons from another quarter, and it was agreed to send the prisoners that night to his residence at Achnacarry. This affair decided those chiefs who were wavering. Keppoch sent Captain Scott's charger to the Prince in Moidart, and a week later the standard was raised amidst great rejoicing at Glen Finnan.

It may be worth stating for the benefit of southron tourists who look upon the Highlanders of that time as uncivilized barbarians that Scott was treated by Locheil more as a brother than a prisoner, and when the governor of Fort-William refused to send a doctor to attend him, Captain Scott was released upon parole and escorted to Fort-William. It is gratifying to be able to relate that the gallant Captain was one of the very few English soldiers who kept their parole. A man who acted with honour and bravery throughout, very different from the swashbuckler type of which Cumberland's subduing force of 1746 was so generally composed.

Donald Macdonald, Tir na Dris, the hero of this opening encounter of the '45 at High Bridge, seems to have been an exceptionally loveable character. "A brave, undaunted, honest man, of a good countenance and of a strong and robust make," and, as is well known, he is supposed to he the person Sir Walter Scott had in his mind when drawing the character of Fergus M'Ivor in " Waverley." In later life his daughter Mary, when living at Bath with the Countess of Dundonald, used frequently to meet General Scott, who always asseverated that it was her father who saved his life. It may be noted that the predecessor of the present Duke of Portland, who so frequently passes the scene of the encounter on his way to fish at Invergarry, was a lineal descendant of General Scott.

It is singular to 'note that this great stone bridge raised by Wade and his sturdy soldiers, which has stood the invasion of armies and the wear and tear of well nigh two centuries, has succumbed within the last few years to a simple amusement on the part of children going to school. The winter rains flowing down the straight stretch of road leading on to the bridge invited an engineering experiment. The side drain was blocked in order to see how high the water would run between the parapets of the bridge. Subsequent frosts burst the masonry asunder, and one arch has already crumbled away beyond repair.

After passing the Bridge we see for a moment, perched on the hill behind, the little white stage-house, now a crofter's cottage. It was one of the houses built by General Wade at regular distances all along his roads, to provide refreshment for travellers. The connection between fresh water and good and evil spirits is well known and this superstition seems to have been exceptionally prevalent amongst the Celts ; witness the Holy Wells so plentiful in the Highlands, Wales and Ireland. Water poured over a large crystal, kept for the purpose, used to free cattle from many ills. The Bible on which Robert Burns and Highland Mary plighted their troth, with hands dipped in the stream, the book held between them, one standing on either bank of the Faillie burn, is still preserved, and the sprawling inscription of the poet may yet be seen on the fly-leaf. To this day many a Highlander who feels unwell and out of sorts and is manifestly beset by the devil, will tell us that he obtains instant relief by crossing a running stream, the evil spirit being unable to cross a flowing brook.

Doubtless it was to a reluctance on the part of evil spirits to cross the river that the late Glengarry - a famous character—attributed his good fortune, when after a long, strong "deoch and doruis," or stirrup-cup at the High Bridge change house, he leapt on to the box of his coach and put the horses at a gallop down the hill, only to be neatly capsized on a green hillock some hundred yards from the doorstep. Ten yards further and the coach with all its inmates must infallibly have been dashed to pieces on the rocks of the river bed, and the last chief of .a noted Highland clan would not have survived to meet his end in a gallant attempt to succour a lady in distress.

We've now enter the Dochanassie district, belonging to a sept of Camerons famous for their fighting qualities even amongst that warrior clan. Who ever asked a Highlander or an Irishman for a fight and was disappointed? When they were not engaged in wars with external enemies the clans would fight amongst themselves, and when even this source of amusement failed them the families would quarrel with one another just to keep their hand in. Fairs and funerals were the recognised occasions for these brawls. In the "Origines Parochiales" we read that James VII. in 1685 granted the patronage of the church of Kilmonivaig to the Duke of Gordon, and included the rights of a yearly fair, called the '1 ruid fair," to be held in this township on the 2nd of September. This was in the days before the greed of landlords had swept the hardy Highlanders from their hills, to seek a fortune beyond the seas, and the barren moorland above and below the railway was covered with the houses of a strong and healthy people. For service at fairs and funerals in time of peace the Camerons had a harmless (?) weapon known to this day as the "Dochanassie stick." It was a short, thick oak bludgeon, with a heavy head, much like the Irish shillalah of to-day, and many are the stories told of heavy blows given in these encounters. The approved length recommended by a famous bruiser was three fist-widths of a stick with a heavy head, and in house fights, where the room was low, they were advised to grip the "dochy" in the middle. -There were giants upon the earth in those days," or else the rooms were small. Perhaps both. A man yet living remembers "the houses that took three days to build and twenty persons would gather round the fire by night, and there was not a candle between this and Inverness." Slips of fir logs dug out from the peat mosses, where forests had been submerged in primeval times, took the place of the tallow dip and oil lamp of to-day. To this district belongs Alexander Anton Cameron, the world-famed athlete of to-day ; probably the strongest natural man alive at the present time : those who take an interest in such things will remember that the records of Dinnie, Fleming, Davidson, and Macrae have all fallen before him, and now he stands unchallenged as the best all-round athletic living. When a mere tyro, without experience in wrestling, Lunch, the conqueror of Hackenschmidt, was quite unable to place him on his two broad shoulders, and if he were yet to enter the lists in this form of single combat few would care to pit themselves against him. Standing over six feet in height, with a chest measurement of fifty-two inches, Cameron weighs seventeen stone, yet his well-proportioned frame possesses all that agility and lightness of foot characteristic of the Highlander. He is an excellent sprinter, can cover at a broad jump some twenty feet, while at a standing high leap he has been known to clear five feet all but an inch —truly a phenomenal performance for a man scaling seventeen stone in weight.

Just before we reach Gairlochy station there stands on the hill above us a conical-shaped mound called "Tom a Bhrataich," or mound of the standard. It rises on the ridge between two gentle swells where the mountain chain dividing Glen Spean from the Great Glen of Albyn sinks down to the junction of the Spean and Lochy rivers, and in which some worthy, by a wild flight of imagination, saw a resemblance to the bovine face, hence named "Stron a ba," or the cow's nose. This mound of the standard, though little more than a molehill, is conspicuous from its situation and peculiar shape, and shows out far up the Great Glen towards Fort-Augustus. It is one of a chain of beacons which girt the country from east to west, and which, in days before the telegraph, was wont to alarm the country in any sudden rising of the clans or when danger threatened from external foe. From Craig Phadruig by Inverness the news was flung from side to side of the great valley through the line of vitrified forts---the source of so much discussion in antiquarian circles—until it reached Kytra by Fort-Augustus, whence this mound of the standard took up the tale and flashed it on far across the great fiat moss which stretches to the foot'•of Ben Nevis. Here again a vitrified fort received the news and sent on the warning message to alarm the west coast.


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