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Braemar Highlands
Part the Third - Chapter I


Finla, the first Chief of the Farquharsons

THE origin of the Farquharson family is thus given in Buchanan’s Rise of the Clans: The Farquharsons, a numerous clan on the banks of the Dee, trace their origin from the German Catti, or Clan Chattan. Macduff Thane of Fife, their Phylarch, had an ancestor named Sheagh or Shaw Macduff, second son to Constantine third Earl of Fife, and great-grandchild to Duncan Macduff, last Thane and first Earl of Fife.

This Sheagh was captain under Malcolm IV., in the expeditions against the Murrays of the province of Murray, in A.D. 1163. For his valour Malcolm made him governor of Inverness Castle,and gave him the lands of Peaty, Brachly, with the forest of Stratherin, which belonged to the rebels. The country people gave him the name of McIntosh, or Thane’s son, which continued to his progeny; yet some of them claimed the name of Shaw.

‘One of them was Shaw of Rothiemurchits, whose offspring settled in Strathdee, and were named Farquharson. From Ferquard Shaw, the eldest son of this family, are the Farquharsons of Invercauld', Inverey, Monaltrie, etc., descended.’

With this aristocratic mode of tracing the Farquharson descent, the Braemar legends, though somewhat plebeian, tally strangely, and are not a little interesting.

About the beginning of the fourteenth century, a poor man came from Spey side to Braemar. His name was Fearchar Shaw, alias a Gaelic phrase, signifying gleyed, or one-eyed Fearchar. He was a basket-maker, or rather wicker-worker,—a trade of no small importance in those days, as reins, currachs, harness, and even houses, were made of wicker-work.

While cutting twigs near the Linn of Dee one day, he unfortunately lost his footing, fell in, and was swept away by the relentless torrent Search was made for his body, but it was unavailing, until his wife bethought herself of soliciting the aid of Mary. So she repaired to the Virgin!s Well at Glen Ey, and spent the night there, praying Mary to intercede with her Son to discover the body of her husband.

Her importunity (so the legend goes) was not unrewarded ; for, as she passed along the side of the river on her way home in the morning, she saw the body of her husband, rolled in his plaid, lying on a sandy. flat near the Dee, which was henceforth called Sliabh Flier chair, i.e. Fearchar’s Plain. The body was soon after buried in the churchyard of Inverey.

The widow, with her son Donald, continued to live at Cnoc Mucan in Glen Clnny; and when the boy grew up he entered the service of Stuart, who was then laird of the estate now called Invercauld.

The laird, Stuart, had only one child, a daughter, and very beautiful. One can scarcely admire the young lady’s taste in fancying Donald, Fearchar’s son, yet she did so ; and the clandestine attachment ended in an elopement. And as Donald had taken the precaution to build a shieling beforehand in Glen Candlic, they took up their residence there, Donald supporting his young wife by hunting. A stone of that shieling is still to be seen, and is that mentioned by Her Majesty the Queen.

One furious winter evening, a considerable time after the elopement, Mrs. Farquharson requiring medical aid, Donald set out to procure it for her. At no great distance from the shieling he met a woman dressed in green. I forget what passed between them, but Donald held on his way; and shortly after the woman entered the hut, and 'rendered Mrs. Farquharson all necessary aid. The woman, after having dressed the child, handed him to his mother, told her it was a son, and that if she would take care not to touch or look at him until her return, she would give him a weird which would make him the greatest man in the kingdom.

After the woman’s departure, the young mother, naturally desirous to see her son, gratified her curiosity to the full, and had scarcely put the child back into the same position when the woman returned, looking much displeased, and said:

'Now, I know you have been looking at him, though I have not been here to see, so I can do little for him now to what I would have done; but he and his posterity will prosper, and be great to the tenth generation.' This child was Fhionladh Mor, i.e. Finla the Great, founder of the Clan Farquharson.

Shortly after the birth of Finla, the Laird Stuart was reconciled to the young couple, and they returned to his house. When the old gentleman died, Donald, his son-in-law, succeeded as laird; and as from his father he was called Mac Ferquhair, i.e. in English, Farquhar’s son, the name was continued to his descendants.

Donald, the new laird, was not permitted to take possession quietly; but finally he succeeded in putting down all who opposed his claims, and held for a time undisturbed possession. After his death Finla was duly installed laird in his stead, and his brother Fearchar got the little lairdship of the Coldrach in Glen Cluny. But the laird of Rothiemnrchiis being related to the old laird Stuart, again laid claim to his estate, believing that he had a better right to it than the Farquharsons.

Might was right in those days; So the two rival parties met on the banks of a small stream north from Invercauld. After a severe conflict, victory declared for Finla Mor. The stream was henceforth named The Burn of the Defeat; hence originated the name Inverchalla, i.e. The Mouth of the Burn of the Defeat; in English it is Invercauld. The Rothiemurchus men were pursued up the Dee; and the laird, poor Seumas-na-Gruaig, i.e. James of the Flowing Locks, fell at the Craggins, and the feud ended.

Finla’s troubles were not yet over, however. The Glen of Aberairder was full of small lairdships. Most of these proprietors being related to the laird Stuart, looked upon the Farquharsons as usurpers, and so were very envious of their prosperity. From this source arose innumerable strifes and battles, until the country was becoming desolated. But on Finla being appointed Bailie for Strathdee by the Earl of Mar, he resolved to bring this state of matters to a summary close—all the more readily when he had found out that these lairds had much to do with raising the Rothiemurchus feud.

Finla Mor accordingly summoned them to meet him in Aberairder. A large barn served for courthouse; nineteen of them promptly attended at the appointed time. The Farquharsons came in great strength to enforce obedience to their mandates.

The trial commenced, and the guilt of all as implicated in some foul deed, being clearly proven, sentence was passed accordingly. The mode of administering justice was summary: they were called in singly; and no sooner was sentence passed than it was carried into execution, by hanging them up on the rafters of a part of the barn partitioned off from the rest, and that to the number of eighteen. The i last and nineteenth, seeing none of his companions reappear, began to suspect something was wrong, and succeeded in making his escape.

These executions made a tremendous stir among the relations of the culprit, and the Farquharsons were cited to appear before a court sitting in Aberdeen. As those executed really deserved their doom, they could not make out a charge of assassination against them ; so a charge of private administration of justice and secret execution Was agreed upon. But the force of this charge, equal in guilt to that of murder, was evaded by the defenders stating that the place in which the execution took place had more windows, in it than there were days in the year. This statement in a sense was actually correct, as the barn, like many of the houses in Aberdeenshire at the time, was made of wicker-work, and of course had openings innumerable.

This cunning defence procured the Farquharsons’ discharge; and the Earl of Mar was so pleased with his deputy’s vigorous measures, that he gave him all the vacant lairdships. The good did not end there ; for the rest of his turbulent neighbours were so overawed, that the internal peace of Braemar was not again infringed during the life of Finla Mor.

Though Finla had thus made peace at home, his prowess was yet sufficiently tried from another quarter. The wealth of the Highlanders in those days consisted principally in flocks and herds; so predatory expeditions into their neighbours’ lands were but too common, as then

‘The good old rule, the simple plan
Obtained, that they should take who have the power,
And they should keep who can.’

It was generally, however, the cattle of hostile clans and rival tribes that these ancient heroes plundered. Only when at feud with each other did they plunder, or ‘harry,’ as they phrased it, those of their own race. On the other hand, the cattle of the lowland farmers were considered lawful property, and the Saxons themselves usurpers, by whom they had been unlawfully dispossessed.

Finla Mor, therefore, had still work enough, and that sometimes of a dark enough nature, to prevent the Rannoch, Spey side, or Lochaber Katrin from enriching themselves at the expense of the Braemarians.

One or two incidents, displaying the best side of his, Katrin surveillance, may be noticed.

One evening some of his shepherds brought the information that they had observed a party of Katrin I skulking among the hills. The laird went out alone to reconnoitre, and soon discovered five young men. With his usual good fortune, he succeeded in coming upon them unawares, and, snatching their arms from them ere they had time to use them, drove them home before him prisoners.

Having reached home, he observed to them that he saw no reason why they should not at once be justiced, i.e. hanged. They pleaded in self-defence that they had done no harm.

‘Only for want of opportunity' retorted Finla.

‘Armed men do not prowl about my place for nothing.’

‘That is quite true, chief' said one of them: ‘it was our design to carry off some cattle, as we were in great straits at home; but as we have taken nothing, have pity upon us. Let us go, and we will never come 'back.’ On that condition he allowed them to depart.

To this system of cattle-lifting no idea of moral turpitude was attached ; so far from it, that they were scarcely considered men until they had successfully accomplished something of that nature: hence the couplet:

‘To toom a fauld, and sweep a glen,
Are just the deeds of pretty men.’

A curious incident, illustrative of this, happened to Finla after his successful rencounter with the five men in the Balloch-bhuie forest.

While out hunting one day, he went down into a hollow to quench his thirst at a spring. As he stooped down to drink, a man of gigantic proportions leaped upon him from among the heather. Finla jerked himself round and seized the man, who muttered, ‘ Grip hard, for you will find now that you have a man.’

‘Not a man, but a cowardly dog,’ replied Finla, ‘who steals behind to attack his foe.’

‘An advantage that Finla Mor did not despise when he attacked boys/ retorted the stranger.

‘I understand' said Finla, ‘and one of these boys wishes now to repay me.’ So the two tightened their grasp of each other, the Kern above and Finla below. Thus they struggled and twisted, until, entirely exhausted, it .seemed as if the duel must end through sheer fatigue. But the wondrous power of endurance and activity of Finla prevailed against the almost gigantic strength of his antagonist ; and he held him pinned to the ground, exhausted and breathless.

‘Do your pleasure' at length cried the stranger, ‘I am at your mercy.'

‘Do you yield yourself my prisoner?’ demanded Finla.

‘Yes, since I can do no better.’ So the two bent their steps to Invercauld. Finla, curious to know the cause of the surprise at the fountain, made inquiry. So the stranger, by way of explanation, told him that he was the eldest son of a chief, and was also about to marry the daughter of another chief, but had never done anything to prove himself a man.

‘When,’ continued he, ‘the five young men returned whom you made prisoners, I was surprised at the account they gave : one to five was no ordinary feat. Here is a chance now, I thought, as hitherto I had not met my equal. And I imagined that if I could only contrive a private meeting with Finla Mor, take him prisoner, and exact a ransom, I would then have done something to prove myself worthy of my bride. So, after announcing my purpose to my future father-in-law, I set out for Braemar; and you know the rest.’

‘Your failure will be punishment enough then,’ said Finla, ‘but I’ll not promise any more adventurers the same lenity.’

‘You need not' replied the stranger; ‘for when people hear that I have lost with you, there are not many more in the Highlands likely to seek the same trial.’ So the young chief was hospitably entertained, and allowed to go on his way in the morning.

Before relating the sequel to this affair, I may notice another piece of good fortune which tradition says happened to Finla. One evening, in the gloaming, a stranger came to claim the hospitality of Invercanid. A very suspicious-lookirig character he was, being wrapped in a great cloak, with a slouched kind of hat over his face, and seemed altogether very desirous of concealing his person as much as possible.

Notwithstanding all these drawbacks, a claim of the kind could not be refused in the Highlands. So the lady, with no very good grace, went about the preparation of supper. Soon after, Finla returned home, and hearing of the suspicious-looking stranger, went in to make his personal observations. After a brief inspection of his guest’s physiognomy, he gave his wife to understand that she must mend her manners. So the best cheer that Invercauld could produce was set before the hungry stranger, who did ample justice to all, and then retired to rest, apparently much pleased with his entertainment.

Next morning Finla accompanied him a considerable distance, showing him how to get to Strathavon by the Bealach Dearg&nA. Inch Rory route, discoursing as they went on of Finla’s present standing and future prospects, of the Rothiemurchus clams to the estate, etc.; and at length they parted with mutual expressions of good-will.

Not long after, a letter was forwarded to Invercauld bearing the Royal seal. On opening it, Finla, my informant stated, found himself promoted to some great honour—‘she wasna richt sure what it was, but she thoucht it was to be Royal Standard-bearer of Scotland; then confirmed in the possession of all his property; and lastly, that all that remained of Crown rights in Braemar were made over to him, in consideration of the hospitality shown to His Majesty, for no less a personage had been the suspicious-looking stranger.

It was not, however, until after the death of the king, when the Regent called out the Scots to resist the English king, and thwart his purpose of marrying his son to the Princess Mary, that Finla, with the flower of Strathdee, joined the army as Royal Standard-bearer of Scotland; and while Finla and his men lay in Edinburgh, waiting for the assembling of the troops, an incident occurred which forms a fitting sequel to the rencounter at the fountain.

He was one evening promenading the streets at a pretty late hour. Some one, coming in an opposite direction, wished to ‘crop the causey.’ To this Finla would not yield, unless the aggressor could prove his right to it by superior prowess; so the two drew their swords. Finla was alone, but this unknown had a suite. Nothing daunted, Finla planted himself firmly on the contested spot, and, drawing his claymore, he made it describe a circle round him, within which no one had the temerity to venture, while every weapon put forth to parry was either splintered to pieces or sent whirling into the air.

A private signal, however, was increasing the number of assailants to an alarming extent, while Finla’s shout of 'Braemar!’ brought no response. About thirty or forty men were now assembled, and there seemed nothing for him but to succumb. But as he once more raised his cry,  Braemar! ’ the door of a neighbouring hostelry opened, and a tall, strong man, after a moment’s reconnoitre, rushed forward and placed himself by the side of the chivalrous Farquhar-son, raising, as he did so, his own war-cry.

It brought a whole swarm of Highlanders to the rescue, and the enemy at once retired, when his unknown friends en masse conducted him to his lodgings. When he wished to know to whom he had been so greatly indebted, one of them said jocularly, ‘Oh, we have seen Finla Mor before this.’ In that voice he recognised the young chief who surprised

passengers, while horses bearing their loads on panniers plod along the muddy strand on either side. A broad-bonneted burgher steps along the cantle; but, meeting a monk in the robes of his order, he yields it with an abject air, and steps off into the dirt. The armed retainer of some neighbouring laird swaggers along the cantle; but he, too, humbly yields to his superior. him at the fountain; and among the others were the five men whom he had once made prisoners in the Balloch-bhuie forest.

A few days after, the gallant Finla was slain at the battle of Pinkie, and was buried at Musselburgh.


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