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Braemar Highlands
Part the Fourth - Chapter II


Gillespie Urrasach and his brother Donald.

AFTER this general disarming of the people, and from the absence of so many of their leading men, the country sank gradually into a quiescent state. But fresh visits from the Kern roused them out of this torpor, and also brought upon the scene a new champion for the Braes of Mar. Champions perhaps I should say, as there were two brothers; the eldest Gilleasbnig MlCoinnick, alias Gilleasbuig Urrasach, i.e. Archibald M‘Kenzie, alias Archibald the Proud or Bold.

Gilleasbuig Urrasach belonged to the Dalmore family; a nephew he was of the laird Seumas Mor-na-pluice, i.e. James with the Big Cheeks. He is said to have been a little person, well-made, with ruddy face and light brown hair. Though of no great size, he was wonderfully strong—‘ all life, activity, and vigour.’ No one in Braemar was his match with claymore, targe, or dirk ; ‘ nor could any with pistol or gun so surely hit a given mark.’

In character he was remarkable for cunning, power of enduring hardship and fatigue, inflexibility of purpose, presence of mind in danger, and coolness in carrying out the schemes his fertile brain contrived. To all this he added unbending fidelity to his chief, and implacable enmity to his foes.

But, with his surpassing bravery, he had an amount of pride which rendered him ridiculous. ‘He would not stoop to agricultural labour; aped the gentleman, as, when dining on brochan, porridge, or kail, he had to be served on table-cloth with cover, knife, and fork, whether needed or not' etc.

He would not stir beyond the threshold without being armed to the teeth,—the ordinary complement being gun, broadsword, dirk, targe, a pair of pistols, a skiandubh stuck in the garter of each hose; besides which he carried one in the sleeve of each arm, which, by a curious contrivance, came down of themselves when he bent his arms in a particular manner. ‘This was to secure him from surprise, however an enemy might find him; assure him of an arm defensive, even when fallen, or taken at close quarters unexpectedly by a foe of greater personal strength.'

A multitude of traditions exist as to his prowess. I notice only a few, for the sake of illustrating the state of the people at this period. In his early years', Gillespie with several others were driving wood south through Glenshee. As they were descending into the glen, a large party of Glenshee men, with their horses and currachs (a sort of creel made of wicker-work, which hung one on each side of the horse; there were no such things as carts in Braemar in those days), were scrambling up the brae on their way for a load of peats.

A kind of ‘ wordy war ’ had for a long time existed between the inhabitants of the glens, which generally took the form of rhyme. The Glenshee men being numerically strongest, took the favourable opportunity of letting their squibs fly without mercy on the Strathdee men below. One rhyme began thus :

Gairn men and Mar men,
Eaters of the bear bread,’ etc.

Gillespie, stung to the quick, sprang up the brae, a dirk in one hand and a skian in the other; and beginning at the last horse, he cut the girths and tumbled the currachs down the hill-side, and so on until he had gone over them all—the Glenshee men standing aghast at his audacity. Then retreating to some distance, he leaped upon a little hillock, and thus parodied their rhyme :

‘Elves of Glenshee,
Wicked fools,’ etc. etc.

Then, by way of conclusion, he said, ‘Now, men, after this, say nothing of the Gairnside and Braemar men when they are fewer than you, or I’ll cut up every one of you, as I’ve done your horse-girths to-day.’

Not long after, Gillespie, in the same employment, was passing through Glenshee alone. When crossing the Blackwater at the ford, a company of Glenshee men coming from the opposite, direction met him about the middle of the stream.

One of the men in passing struck Gillespie’s horse with his bludgeon; and the horse making a plunge, deluged Gillespie with water. His dirk was out in a moment, and with one dig of it did serious damage to one of the aggressor’s legs. And not satisfied with that, he pursued the man to the bank, where a desperate struggle ensued. The others came to the rescue; and at length Gillespie, quite overpowered, and his victim, were both left for dead.

Some time after, when the bodies were being removed, it was found that neither were quite dead; so they were removed to a house in the vicinity, and the one ‘installed in a bed in the butend, the other in the ben; and their wounds and bruises attended to.’

Both got on favourably; and as the people’s work had to be attended, they were left alone one day. About mid-day, when the good-wife came home to prepare dinner, to her great horror she found Gillespie lying in the passage between the two rooms. Unable to walk, he had crawled that length with his dirk between his teeth, with the intention of getting to the Glenshee man, to settle accounts with him. This revengeful purpose was happily prevented. He was forced to bed, watched, and as soon as possible removed to Braemar.

The affair was not yet ended, however. Dalmore, thinking that his kinsman had not been justly dealt by in Glenshee required that condign punishment should be inflicted on the party who had ill-treated him. This the lairds of Glenshee refused to do; so war was declared, and both parties mustered their men.

Dalmore, as on a former occasion, sought the aid of his ally Invereshy. The messenger he employed was a bold follower called ‘Cas Bhruite' i.e. Bruised Foot, who received instructions to march what men he could get with all speed to the Cairnwell, as there M‘Kenzie had appointed to meet the lairds of Glenshee.

Cas Bhruite delivered his message, and Invereshy at once promised eighteen men; and pitying the lame messenger, he bade him rest a day before he returned.

‘Nay,’ said Cas Bhruite, ‘I will show the nearest way.’

'Where they will be to-day, you will be the morn' returned the laird.

Bruised Foot made no reply, but quietly taking up his place in the rear, set off with the party. By and by he was tramping in the middle. In a little he had gained the van. Without rest or pause, through wet road or dry, long heather, mosses, and rough moor, that desperate march was continued without a word being spoken.

They crossed the Monadh Ruadh, came down by the Geldie, on by the head of Glen Christie and Glen Conna-feidh, over by the Alltan Odhar, the Baddoch, and Loch Brotachanside, and appeared on the scene of conflict as the combatants were preparing to meet. Seeing a second army coming against them, the lairds of Glenshee agreed to the terms dictated by Dalmore. ‘As to Cas Bhruite, his fame rang at every hearth in Mar and Badenoch; even yet, the terrible march he conducted that day is not forgotten.’

From a multitude of Kern adventures, by which Gillespie won for himself a name and laurels, I select only one. Some time previous, the lairds of Braemar had appointed twelve men to keep watch against the incursions of the Kern, with -Gillespie as their general-in-chief ; yet one morning the Inverey folks found their pens and stalls empty. No sooner was this known, than Gillespie and his men set out on the track of the robbers, and overtook them at the ‘Botlian Leathan.'

The Kern, seeing the pursuers in force equal to themselves, signified their willingness to come to terms. The two parties therefore joined each other, and began to talk together in small groups, as the matter was to be arranged amicably; and Gillespie with the Kern chief .had gone aside a little, to agree on the terms of arrangement. After much wrangling an understanding was come to.

‘Shake hands on it' said the Kern chief, holding out his open palm.

'Willingly' replied Gillespie, stretching out his hand. The Kern chief took the extended hand, and cunningly manoeuvred with it until he had Gillespie firmly by the wrist.

‘Now, Lochaber men' cried he, ‘let the kail and the bear bread out of these Braemar men’s stomachs for them; I have the best of them by the hand.’

Gillespie was not outdone. By means of the skian-dubh in his sleeve, and the curious contrivance by which he got it into his left hand, he in turn cried, ‘Now, Braemar men, let the stolen beef and mutton out of these Lochaber men’s stomachs for them, as I have the best of them on my knife.’ And with that he plunged it into the Kern’s heart.

The Lochaber men, on seeing their chief fall, were disconcerted; and the Braemarians took such advantage of that circumstance, that only two escaped, to tell the tidings in Lochaber.

With all his greatness, Gillespie enjoyed a frolic occasionally. For instance, the priests being still under interdict, they had to meet with their people in quiet places; and one day, while some old women were waiting for him in one of the upper glens, Gillespie took a fancy to act ‘father confessor’ to them. He succeeded in making them believe that he had been commissioned to act for the priest; so all retired from the room but one, and she commenced in the usual manner.

Gillespie listened with the gravity of a judge for some time. At length he started, and with extraordinary emphasis exclaimed, 'What! did you really do that?’ The thing was very trivial.

‘Yes' replied she, sobbing, ‘and may God forgive me for it.'

‘Pardon you!’ cried Gillespie. ‘Never! that’s a sin for which there is no pardon in this life, nor in the life to come.’

With that she began to wring her hands, and be in great despair; and Gillespie, unable longer to restrain himself, had fallen back on his chair, and was laughing unrestrainedly. And just at that juncture the priest made his appearance. Gillespie’s was a very grave offence ; and however it fared with the old woman and the pardon of her sin, he had no little trouble, through penance and otherwise, to get rid of his.

Another Kern incident, and the last I shall notice, brings out in bold relief his inflexibility of purpose. It was late autumn, and the summer shielings of the Alltan Odhar being deserted by the return of the people to their homes, the Kern found refuge in the huts they left. Spies, which they sent over the country, observing that Dalmore’s cattle were less guarded

than the others, gave information to that effect. The whole band came down and swept the place clean, and before morning had the whole safely lodged with them in the Alltan Odhar.

Seumas Mor na pluice sent a message to Gillespie, then ascended the Ey with his two sons and a small body of retainers. Having come to open rupture with the Farquharsons, he was unwilling to risk an engagement with the marauders, and perhaps lose his men: so he instructed his sons, with all his followers, to make a circuit and climb a hill overlooking the Kern’s camp, and thus cut off their retreat from Braemar. He was then to go singly to them, and try to make arrangements. If not successful, he was to give a signal—namely, by raising his hand to his brow—on seeing which they were to fire.

M'Kenzie then went on ; and calling the chief to parley—it was the renowned Cathfhearnach Dubh, i.e. the Black Man of the Battles—endeavoured to get back his cattle for a sum of money, which he offered. The two chiefs stood a little in advance of the principal shieling; and while in the heat of the bargain, Dalmore, forgetting himself, put up his hand to right his bonnet. His men mistaking this for the signal, fired ; a sentinel who guarded the shieling fell. The Kern chief thinking himself betrayed, seized the gun of the fallen sentinel, and shot Seumas Mor na pluice. A cairn of stones was afterwards erected on the spot where he fell, near the hunting shiel of the Duffs in the Alltan Odhar.

A short contest followed. The sons with their party left their vantage-ground; both the young men fell, and the rest were put to flight. In the confusion that followed their deaths, the Kern escaped with the cattle; and Gillespie, who now arrived, not having sufficient force to pursue them, only succeeded in shooting down some stragglers. On returning home, his wife told him that they had also stolen his own grey mare.

‘Weel,’ Gillespie replied, ‘I could pardon them for that; but this day they have killed the laird and his two sons in the Alltan Odhar, and I swear that I will not sleep twice in the same bed, nor drink twice of the same well, till I have avenged their death, and received full value for my grey mare.’

His wife tried hard to turn him from his purpose; but no—Gillespie was inflexible. So, dressed in beggars’ rags, his arms below them of course, and a wallet over his shoulder, he set out for Lochaber.

His great difficulty was to find out the chief who shot the laird; for, having seen him but imperfectly at the Alltan Odhar affair, he could not distinguish him from the rest of his countrymen. Two years passed in the fruitless search; still his purpose remained unshaken, and he went on begging, attending also steadily fair and preaching, marriage, late wake, baptism, burial, feast and meeting of every kind. At a festive gathering one evening, while the dance was going on with great spirit, one of them jostled another rather awkwardly.

‘Take care, man,’ replied the other, ‘or I’ll serve you as I did Seumas Mor na plaice'

‘They were dancing round, ye ken,’ said my informer, ‘and Gillespie waited until the man came^ back again, and was dancing with his back to where he sat; and just in a moment he drove his dirk into his back up to the very hilt, and fled before the bystanders got owre the start. Then the whole band set out in pursuit, but no Gillespie could be found. An’ whare dee ye think he was a’ the time? Just on the head of the house. It wasna very high, ye ken ; so he just lap up, and lay there among the lang girse till near morning; and when they were a’ back and quiet again, he came doon an’ set away hame.’

Such is the account I had from a descendant of the Dalmore family. There is another version of the story, however; but the one I have just given is likely to be the most correct. The other is more circumstantial, and reads better. It runs thus:—

‘His fruitless search had continued for three years, when a great meeting of the fighting men in Lochaber was arranged to take place in a tavern, in order to concert a raid, and also to divide the black mail levied on subject districts.

The inn where the meeting was to take place was a wide, long, low building, with a flat roof covered over with weeds and long grass. Three holes in the side walls, half closed up with sods, served the place of windows for the great hall. A huge table of rude masonry, covered over with flat stones, stretched from end to end, leaving a space for passage between the wall and the seats, which were also built of stone, and covered with moss and heather. A hole in the roof served for the egress of smoke, and a large opening in the front wall for a door; and along the wall strong juniper roots were inserted, whereon to hang their arms, etc., while they took refreshment. A partition divided this primitive hall from the innkeeper’s dwelling, equally primitive. Through a small wicket the refreshments were served to visitors.

‘To this inn Gillespie repaired in good time, and so insinuated himself into the landlord’s good graces that he was permitted to sleep in a corner of the hall, covered up with heather.

When night descended, the Kern assembled in great force. A blaze of split pine roots burning on the table enlightened the whole company. The bag of black mail lay conspicuous beside the beacon. The guns, swords, dirks, and targes on the wall reflected the blaze fantastically. After the company had ate and drank plentifully, they began to amuse themselves: they talked, and roared, and laughed, and sang-; but Gillespie lay as still as if he heard them not. In this half-drunken humour they began to boast of their deeds. And as each was trying to get a hearing for himself, the chief rose up and ordered silence; then proposed that each man should in turn tell the most remarkable adventure of his life. The proposal was received with cheers.

‘One after another then rose and told his tale: a medley as wild as the assemblage, and as varied, each more fearful than the preceding.

“Silence!” shouted the chief, as he rose to tell his tale. It was the Cathfhearnach Dubh himself.

“I too,” he began, “have done many remarkable things in my life; but what I account my greatest feat, was the taking away of Gillespie Urrasac his grey mare while he was at supper; and the best shot that ever I fired was that which laid low Seumas Mor na pluice

Gillespie leaped midway from his bed to the table: his beggars’ rags fell from off him, while the barrel of a pistol glanced in his outstretched hand.

‘“Was it better than that?” he roared, as every eye glared upon him. A sharp report and bright flash followed. The blood spouted from the chief’s breast, as, leaping up in the air, he shrieked out, “Gillespie Urrasach!”—then fell backward dead.

The Kern seemed petrified into the stone on which they sat. Gillespie kicked the beacon through the hall; then seizing the bag of black mail, he glided like a shadow through the open door; and as soon as he cleared it, he put his hand upon the edge of the low roof, sprang upon it, and as the night was dark, lay concealed among the low grass.

‘The Kern, on recovering themselves, made a tumultuous rush to the door, and searched in every direction, but without success. After hours of weary pursuit they returned to the tavern, and called over their names, to see that their number was complete. Thus assured that there was no ambush in the way, he slipped quietly down and set out for Braemar, as they began to intone the first notes of the coronach over the Cathfearnach Dubh. He never halted until he reached Dalmore. Once there, he delivered up | the black mail to the new laird, not forgetting, however, to pay himself for his grey mare.’

The subsequent history of this bag of gold is interesting. The laird of Dalmore hearing that lands in Cromar were for sale, resolved to lay out his gold in their purchase. On going to inspect them, however, he quite changed his purpose, and determined ; rather to keep his gold in its hiding-place. Not satisfied, however, with its present place of deposit, j he shifted it to another; so it found its last resting-place in a height on the south side of Ben-Macdhui.

McKenzie’s mode of selecting his hiding-place was original : he left his home by night, so as to reach Ben-Macdhui before morning; having reached a certain point, he waited there until the sun rose, and there, below the first spot which its beams illuminated, he buried his gold. His object of course was to mark with precision the spot where it lay, as any external mark might have served to others as a clue to its whereabouts.

It was not until M‘Kenzie lay on his deathbed that he revealed the secret to his sons. But although he was most particular in telling them the day of the year on which he buried it, and the particular spot on which they were to wait until the sun arose, all their efforts to obtain the gold have been unavailing ; so the pose on the Meal-an-oir, i.e. Hill of the Gold, is yet undisturbed. It is not many weeks yet since an intelligent old lady belonging to the M‘Kenzie family assured me that she had not the slightest doubt of the truth of this account, or that the gold is yet in. its hiding-place on the south side of Ben-Macdhui.

Gillespie lived to a good old age ; and some stories regarding his conduct on his deathbed are equally quaint with those pertaining to his life. But death is too serious a matter to jest with. His younger brother Donald Urrasach, or Donald the Proud, has already been immortalized by Sir Thomas Dick Lauder, in his legend of The Miller of Glen Cuiach. That I legend, except in a very few particulars, is perfectly correct, as an old man still living in Castleton remembers the miller, whose name was James Ley, and the gusto with which he used to relate the story, and also how heartily he used to laugh at Donald’s discomfiture.


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