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Traditions of Lochaber
From the Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness


Perhaps there is no part of the Western Highlands that has clung so tenaciously to the traditions of old, and the glory of the ancient heroes, as the district of Lochaber. This, however, is not to be much wondered at when it is remembered that although the West of Scotland has frequently been overrun by our enemies, they never obtained a firm footing in Lochaber. The Roman legions, in attempting to penetrate into the wilds of Lochaber, came to grief in the Moor of Rannoch, and Tacitus, the Roman historian, relates that the Romans in one campaign in Caledonia lost 60,000 men.. These are traditionally believed to have perished in the winter’s storms in the Moor of Rannoch in the attempt to penetrate into Lochaber. At a later period, we find the Lochaber men, under Sir Ewen Cameron of Lochiel, compelling the great Oliver Cromwell to make honourable terms of peace with them. It is perhaps to be regretted that the men who handed down the stories of the noted men of old, and their deeds of valour and daring, are fast dying out. A number of years ago many old men in Lochaber were able to give endless accounts of such men as Sir Ewen Cameron, Taillear Dubh na Tuaighe, Domhnuill Donn, and other popular heroes.

Most of the traditions of the district relate to prowess in war or the chase. A good many stories are told of the Lochaber men’s dexterity with the long-bow, and indeed it is possible there are some among us to this day who are fairly good at “drawing the long bow.” If the stories that are handed down to us regarding the feats of the Lochaber Archers are true, they would vie with the best archers of' Sherwood Forest. The favourite wood for the bow was the yew (Iubhair), and the arrows were winged with the Loch Treig eagle feather, thus distinguishing them from the grey goose shaft of “Merry England.” Among the famous huntsmen of old flourishes the name of Donald Macdonald, better known as Domhnuill MacFhuilaidh nandan, who belonged to the Braes of Lochaber. Besides being a huntsman and noted archer, he was no mean poet, although only one authentic poem of his has been handed down to posterity. This poem is known as “A’ chomhachag.” According to this man, the proper place to fix the arrow when hunting the-deer was in the stag’s ear. In a verse of the poem mentioned, in praise of a member of the Keppoch family, he says: — “’S trie a chur u do Shaighead an cruathas, An cluais an daimh Chabraich an sas.”

It is related of Domhnuill MacFhuilaidh that on one occasion he followed the chase outwith the bounds of Lochaber into Perthshire, and was captured by the Earl of Athole. Donald being so captured outwith his own territory was doomed to death by the imperious Earl. His fame, however, as an archer had spread far and wide, and the Earl of Athole resolved to put his dexterity to the test. For this purpose he brought him to a hillside in charge of a strong guard. On arriving there, the Earl pointed out to Donald a hind which was grazing, with its head away from them, showing only the hind quarters, and told him if he could pierce one of the hind’s eyes with an arrow his life would be spared. To any man, even the best rifle shot of the present day, this task might appear hopeless, but Donald rose to the occasion. He quietly took a blade of grass lengthways between his thumbs, and blowing through between them to make the blade of grass act as a reed, emitted a sound resembling the cry of a fawn. The hind, immediately on hearing the sound, turned its head in the direction whence it proceeded, and gave Donald his desired opportunity, of which he was not slow to take advantage. Promptly bending his bow, the shaft whistled through the air, and the hind fell dead, the arrow entering by an eye and piercing the brain. To the credit of the Athole men, it is said that Donald was forthwith set at liberty, and is believed to have died at a good old age in the Braes of Lochaber.

A story is told of a love-lorn Badenoch man who resolved to take a wife from Lochaber. He accordingly came to the district with twelve men, and before the lady’s relatives could save her, he carried her off, proceeding up Glen Spean on the north side of the river and towards Loch Laggan. The lady’s brother, however, armed himself with his bow and arrows, and started in pursuit of the kidnapper. He proceeded along the south bank of the river, and got in front of his enemies at a point between Fersit and Moy. He took up his position in a hollow on the south side of the river, and awaited the passing of the Badenoch men on the north side. While so waiting, he busied himself sharpening his arrows on a stone. In due time the kidnapping party appeared on the road leading to Kingussie. The leader, as a mark of distinction, wore a red cloak, and towards him the Lochaberian’s shaft was directed. The shaft found its mark, and the leader fell, but no sooner had he fallen than the next in rank donned the red cloak, and he immediately shared the fate of his leader. The remaining men successively donned the fateful red cloak, but they all fell by the unerring shafts of the Lochaber man. Having killed the thirteen men, he threw their bodies into a small pond near the River Spean, which is still pointed out to the visitor, and took the young lady home. The stone on which the arrows were sharpened is still pointed out, with the impression or groove made in it by the arrow heads. This stone was pointed out to the writer a few years ago. The distance between the stone and where the Badenoch men are said to have fallen is not less than two hundred yards, so that the old English statute prohibiting practice with the long-bow at a shorter distance than a furlong (220 yards) was amply justified.

Ian Beag a Bhuilg (Little John of the White Quiver— according to some, John Cameron of Inchree, but according to other McLachlan of Coruanan) was another famous archer. It is told of him that when the Ardnamurchan men under Mac Mliic Eoin invaded Ardgour, he formed one of the party that resisted the invasion. The invading chief was mounted and clad in complete steel, and when he rode in front of his host to view his enemies, the day being warm, he raised the visor of his helmet to wipe the sweat from his brow. While doing so a shaft from the bow of the redoubtable Ian Beag pinned his hand to his forehead, causing instant death to the chief, and dismay to his followers, who forthwith fled. Ian Beag is also credited with killing Cameron of Glen Nevis. Apparently there was bad blood between them, and Ian resolved to do away with the chief of this sept of the Clan Cameron. To achieve his purpose he induced Cameron’s dairymaid to inform him where and when he could see her master, without being seen. The dairymaid informed him that he could see the chief at the front of the house early in the morning, when she would give himself and his retainers their morning drink of warm milk. She further explained that the chief would be the first to receive the cuach or drinking cup. Ian accordingly hid himself in some brackens at a convenient distance from Glen Nevis House, which in those days was at Achan Lagan Bhig. The chief appeared in the morning as usual, and received the cuach from the dairymaid, and while raising it to his lips an arrow from Ian’s bow pierced the hand holding the cup and penetrated his breast. Some say this happened not at Acha’n Lagan Bhig but at Innis-nan-ceann, a place further up Glen Nevis, and that the man who was killed was in the act of drinking out of what is termed a “cuman,” a kind of wooden pail or bucket, and that the arrow pierced the “cuman” and penetrated the man’s head. The writer ventures no opinion as to which version is the authentic one.

Quite a halo of romance surrounds the memory of Domh-nuill Donn Mac-Fear Bhothuintinn. He was the son of MacDonald of Bohuntin, and lived about the beginning of the seventeenth century. Donald was a noted cattle-lifter, the district of Strathspey suffering much from his depredations. Although so frequently engaged in marauding expeditions, he found time to cultivate the muse, and was a bard of considerable merit. A verse from one of his songs shows the contempt in which he held the Grants of Strathspey. He thus refers to the Chief of that clan : —

“Ged is carrach leat mo cheann,
’S ged is cam leat mo chasan;
Thoginn creach ’o Tighearna Grannd
’S ghabhinn dram’s dol seachad.”

On one occasion he successfully lifted a creach in the North Country, and took the dairymaid with him to attend the cattle. On arriving with his spoil on the confines of Lochaber, and while resting for the night, he entrusted the dairymaid to the care of the lady of the house where he lodged,, upon whom he looked as a friend. This good lady, however, seems to have been of a sympathetic nature, and the dairymaid easily prevailed upon her to set her at liberty in the dead of night, while Domhnuill Donn was sound asleep. When thus set at liberty, the dairymaid called the cows, which, recognising her voice, immediately followed her, and when Domhnuill arose in the morning the maid and cattle-were “ower the hills and far awa’.”

On another occasion Domhnuill Donn made a raid into Glencoe (one of many), but met with indifferent success. Instead of coming home with cattle and horses as was his wont, he had to flee for his life, hotly pursued by the Glencoe men into the heart of Lochaber. "On arriving at Inverlochy he resolved, in order to elude his pursuers, to cross the Lochy to the north bank by a ford which then existed, about half a mile above the present suspension bridge. He successfully negotiated the ford, but on landing on the north bank one of the Glencoe men, an archer, appeared on the south bank. Bending his bow and letting fly an arrow at Donald, the Gloncoe man shouted “Sin agad. . . . ite firein Ghlinn Iubhair.” The arrow missed its mark, and Donald immediately returned the compliment with the remark—“Sin agad.... ite firein Locha Treig.” Donald’s aim was better than his adversaries, his arrow piercing the latter's heart.

Domhnuill Donn ultimately fell a victim to the wiles of a woman. He was decoyed to Inverness, and while there an attempt was made to capture him. He, however, escaped from the town, hotly pursued by a company of men—sixty-three according to himself. He had with him a matchlock or musket—a rare weapon in the Highlands at that time. It proved of no avail, having missed fire, and Donald was captured. He was tried at Inverness for horse-stealing and other offences, condemned, and sentenced to be beheaded, which sentence was duly carried out. While in prison under sentence of death he composed several songs, many of which are common in Lochaber at the present time. In one of these he regrets that he was captured without shedding a drop of his enemies’ blood; opens in a torrent of invective upon the useless matchlock, and bewails the* want of a trusty claymore. So highly was Domhnuill Donn esteemed even by the officials of the law, that it is believed in his native place to the present day, that if only a dozen of his countrymen had appeared at Inverness to demand his: release, even when under sentence of death, he would have been set at liberty. With reference to the Gaelic quotations in the foregoing pages, it is left to the members of the Gaelic Society to translate them, and also to fill in the blanks!

The battle of Mull Roy, which was fought between the Mackintoshes, supported by a company of regulars, and the MacDonells of Keppoch, is of course matter of history; but there are some traditions connected with the battle which have rarely appeared in print. One of these is to the effect that a man named Campbell, who attended cattle at Loch-treig, hearing that the fiery cross had been sent through the Braes of Lochaber, hied him to join the Keppoch standard. He arrived on the east bank of the River Roy as the opposing hosts were engaging in battle on the west bank, the Mackintoshes and their allies being drawn along the foot of the hill and near to the river. Apparently the worthy herd was distinguished by the Mackintoshes as a foeman, for before he could cross the river he was wounded by an arrow in the thigh. 'Extracting the weapon, with a contemptuous remark, he •bandaged his wound, and then sprang across the river at a narrow gorge, new known as “The Mackintosh’s Leap,” from the fact of the standard-bearer of the latter having jumped across at the same place later in the day to save the standard. Being totally unarmed, this worthy son of Diarmid pulled down the branch of an ash tree, and swinging it round his head dashed at his enemies, attacking them in the rear, and, it is believed, causing such confusion in their ranks as materially contributed to their defeat. Be this as it may, it is said that when the fight was over, the herd was the proud possessor of a sword.


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