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In the Shadow of Cairngorm
XXVI. The Thieves’ Road, with Incidents by the way


THE caterans were the thieves that came from the hills. They had their home in the Central Highlands, from whence they made raids in all directions on their richer neighbours. They are often referred to in Acts of Parliament. As far back as 1389 there is an Act—"Contra omnes malefactores viros, Kethranicos, &c." The Litany of Dunkeld is said to contain the following clause—"A cateranis, et latronibus, a lupis, et omnia mala bestia, Domine libera nos," where the caterans are put first, as more to be dreaded than either wolves and other wild beasts! In legal phraseology they are variously designated as loons, robbers, rievers, somers, Hieland thieves, and in one signal case the band is graphically described as "ane infamous byke of lawless lymmars." The following extract is from a precept to Sir John Grant, 1635:—"That there is a number of disordered and broken lymmars of the Hielanders that of late hes brokin louse, and in troupes and companies comes down to the in-countrie and to other parts and bounds next adjacent to the Hielands, where they have committed cruill and barbarous murders, and slaughters and manie stouthes, reiffs, heirships, and deprivations upon our peaceable and good subjects." There had been complaint of the slackness of the Laird in dealing with the Macgregors and other raiders, and he had excused himself on the ground that he had no proper commission, but this was now supplied, with caution "to follow and pursue thame with fire and sword." There were great differences among the caterans. The bulk of them were simply thieves, but there were amongst them men of a higher stamp, who, though they would have scorned to take part in common theft, held it no crime to make reprisals on their foes, or to replenish their folds and coffers by plundering their enemies. What Leyden says of the Border moss-troopers might be applied to the caterans—

"Here fixed his mountain home, a wide domain,
And rich the soil had purple heath been grain;
But what the niggard ground of wealth denied
From fields more bless’d his fearless arm supplied."

Mr Lorimer, in his notes, has some curious remarks in defence of spreachs. He imagines the raiders as saying—"We are the descendants of the first natives, and original proprietors of all this kingdom, both Highlands and Lowlands. The land all belongs to us, consequently the grass on that land, and consequently the cattle that is fed on that grass. The Lowlanders are Sassenach (this is a corruption of Saxons), or Englishmen, who have come and taken our country from us, and, by taking their cattle or corn, we only take what belonged, or ought now to belong, to us." This is the very argument which Scott puts into the mouth of Roderick Dubh

"Pent in this fortress of the North,
Think’st thou we will not sally forth
To spoil the spoiler as we may,
And from the robber rend the prey.
Ay, by my soul, while on you plain
The Saxon rears one shock of grain,
While, of ten thousand herds, there strays
But one along yon river’s maze,
The Gael, of plain and river heir,
Shall, with strong hand, redeem his share."

The Raider also quotes from the Apocrypha the answer of Simon to King Antiochus (Maccabees xv. 33-34):—

"We have neither taken other men’s land, nor holden that which appertaineth to others, but the inheritance of our fathers, which our enemies had wrongfully in possession a certain time. Wherefore we, having opportunity, hold the inheritance of our fathers."

And he further strengthens his case by referring to the customs of the Greeks, as narrated by Thucydides—"Robbery was honoured, provided it was done with address and courage, and that the ancient poets made people question one another as they sailed by, ‘If they were thieves,’ as a thing for which no one ought to be scorned or upbraided." Principal Sir W. Geddes has kindly verified the reference to Thucydides—He says—"The passage, Book I., 5, is a famous one, and suits the modern Klephts, as well as ancient AEtolians." Another friend, Mr G. Harvey, Grantown, has supplied a note with translation :—

"In speaking of the early Greek tribes, Thucydides, in the introduction to his History of the Peloponnesian War, describes them as migratory, procuring a precarious subsistence, and with no common name or interest, and the fifth chapter of his first book, which contains the passage quoted by Sir Wm. Geddes, and here underlined, might be translated as follows, keeping as literal a rendering as possible:-

‘For of old the Greeks and such of the barbarians [i.e. non-Greeks] as were on the seaboard of the mainland or were in possession of islands, when once they began to cross over in ships from one to the other, betook themselves, under the lead of their strongest men, to piracy (or robbery] to enrich themselves and maintain their dependents [lit, weaklings]. They would swoop down on towns unfortified and peopled like villages [i.e. exposed] and would take to pillaging than and thereby would procure the bulk of their subsistence [or livelihood]. This practice [employment] did not yet [i.e. in those early times] entail any discredit but rather brought reputation. Even in our own days some of those who live on the mainland exhibit [this trait], as they take credit for doing this [i.e. plundering] well, and in the old poets voyagers are everywhere alike questioned whether they are pirates [buccaneers, rievers] [on the assumption] that those to whom the enquiry is put would not disown the practice, nor would those who sought to know regard it as a reproach. They pillaged each other on the mainland, and to this day in many parts of Greece they live in the old way among the Locri, the AEtolians, and the Acarnanians, and in that part of the mainland; and the bearing of iron weapons [i.e. arms] has continued with the mainlanders from their old practice of piracy."

The Thieves’ Road (Rathad-nam-Mearleach) can be traced from Lochaber to the East Coast of Scotland. In this parish it hugs the hills. Entering from the heights of Rothiemurchus, it skirts the south side of Loch Morlich, passes out at the Green Loch, then by the Sleighich, the Eag-mhòr, and the Crasg, into the lowlands of Banff and of Moray. It was a rule with the caterans to return by a different way than that by which they had come. They generally made their raids when there was good moonlight. They were also watchful of opportunities. Their spies, who were resident in the country, or on friendly terms with the people, gave them information, which they turned to good account. Once upon a time the men of Tulloch were away at Forres for a millstone. They had to roll it along by means of a pole thrust through the hole in the centre, and this took time, and had to be carefully done. In their absence a Lochaber band made a raid, and carried off much spoil. When the Tulloch men found what had happened, they hurried off in pursuit. Next day being Sunday, the Rothiemurchus men turned out from church and joined them. The Camerons were found near Loch Ennich, and, after a sharp encounter, they were driven off, and the spoil recovered. One man only fell in the fight—who is known in tradition as Fear-na-casan-caol, the man with the spindly legs. Weddings and other festivals sometimes afforded a chance for a foray. At the marriage of Fear Dal-na-poit. in the 16th century, there was a great gathering. All went merrily, but next morning the folds were empty. There was at once a call to arms—

"Ho! gur e ‘n latha e, ‘s mithich bhi ‘g eiridh
Mhnathan a ghlinne, nach mithich dhuibh eiridh.
Ho! gur e ‘n latha e, ‘s mithich bhi ‘g eiridh
Mise rinn a mhoch eiridh, ‘s agaibh ‘s tha feum air!
Ho! gur e ‘n latha e, ‘s mithich bhi ‘geiridh
‘S Ian dubh biorach, a ‘gioman na spreidh."

Grant of Achernack commanded the party. They found the Lochaber men resting at the Slochd of Bachdcharn. The assailants had the advantage of the hill. They pressed their foes hard, and at last compelled them to retreat. Achernack, who was a good archer, slit the Lochaher Captain’s nose with an arrow, from which he got the name of Ian Dubh biorach. Ian vowed revenge. Some time after, Achernack met the priest of Finlarig at the mill of Drummuillie, and had a keen dispute with him as to which should be first served, The priest won, and Achernack said he would remember it to him. Ian Dubh heard of this. He came at night to Pinlarig, entered the house by a window, and stabbed the priest to the heart. There was great indignation for this cruel murder. Achernack’s threat was remembered, and he was arrested by order of the Bishop of Moray and taken to Elgin, where, it was said, he was put to the torture. Some time after Ian Dubh was caught, and condemned to be hanged, but before his death he confessed to the murder of the priest. On this the Laird of Grant obtained the release of Achernack, and as some compensation for the wrongs done to him, the Bishop settled upon him the lands of Muckrach. Such is the tradition as to how the Grants got Muckrach. The contentions between the clans frequently led to raiding. The chiefs connived at such expeditions, as they got advantages from them in various ways. The famous Raid of Moyness, 1645, affords an illustration. This raid is described in the following letter from Mr Grant, factor, Heathfield, dated 13th December, 1810:—

"When the Strathspey men, commanded by Grant of Lurg, came near where the Camerons and the cattle were, one meikle or big Lawson, one of Mr Lawson of Balliemore’s ancestors, was sent to the Camerons to desire them to leave the cattle to prevent bloodshed. On his way back to his own party, with the answer he got, one of the Camerons let fly an arrow and shot him dead, upon which the conflict began. The Camerons were worsted, and the cattle taken from them. The Strathspey men, in their way after the Camerons, and as they passed by Kylachie, Mr Mackintosh of Kylachie made offers of himself and his people to accompany them, but they declined his assistance, excepting that of one man of the name of Grant he had, who was a famous bowman. He went with them and acted valiantly. Of the Strathspey men, there was one Grant of the old Ballindalloch family, who in that affair behaved most cowardly. As a punishment for his conduct he was obliged every Sunday, after sermon, at Inverallan, during a year, to stand up and say, in the face and hearing of the congregation, ‘I am the man who behaved most cowardly on such an occasion,’ and opposite to him the other Grant who had gone along with them from Kylachie, stood up and said, ‘I am the man who behaved valiantly on that occasion.’ I know none of the offspring of these two Grants now in the country. This anecdote and piece of history I had two nights ago from my brother, the minister of Duthil."

The Laird of Grant complained to Lochiel of the misconduct of his people, and received the following characteristic reply:—

"ALLAN CAMERON of Lochiel to Sir JAMES GRANT of Freuchie.

"Glenlocharbeg, 18 October, 1645.

"RYCHT HONORABILL AND LOVING CUSENE,—My heartly commandationes being remembrit to your Worship. I have received your worshipis letter conserning this misfortun aceidente that never fell out houses the lyk before in no man’s dayes; be prased be God, I am innocent of the samming and my freindis, both in respect that they got within your worshipis boundis, bot to Morrayland, quhair all men taks their prey, nor know not that Moynes was ane Graunt, but thocht that he was ane Morrayman, and if they knew him, they would not stirre his land more than the rest of your worshipis boundis in Straspy; and, sir, I have gotten such a losse of my freindis, quhilk I hope your Worship shall consider for hawe aught dead alredie, and I have 12 or 13 under cure, quhilk I know not quho shall die or quho shall live of the samming. So, sir, whosoever hes gotten the greatist loss I am content that the samm be reparet to the sight of freindis that loveth us beth alyk; and ther is auch a truble heir amongest us, that we can not look to the same for the present tyme, quhill I witt who shall live of my men that is under caire. So not further troubling your worship at this tyme, for your worship shall not be offendit, at my freindis innocencie. So I rest yours,

"ALLAN CANERONE of Lochyll."

Raiding continued to the middle of the last century. After Culloden, the practice was put down with a strong hand. A central authority was established at Inverness, with local officers. When a robbery was reported a detachment was sent out at once from the nearest garrison, the country was scoured, the culprits arrested, and judgment inflicted with stern severity. It is said that in the first five years after 1746 more thieves were hanged in Inverness than in the previous quarter of a century. But the practice lingered later, for the Rev. John Grant says (O. S. A.) that he remembers when the people of this country kept out a watch in the summer months for protecting their cattle, and these watches kept up by a round of duty, and relief at certain periods.

The following letter from the famous Rob Roy is interesting, as referring to "lifting cattle," and the way of tracking the raiders:—

"Rob Roy to Lieutenant-Colonel WILLIAM GRANT of Ballindalloch, as to certain stolen cattle.

"Innerlochlarig, in Ballquidder,
"May the 26, 1726.

"Mv DEAR COLONELL, — I cannot express myself how much we that are M’Gregor’s are oblidged to you. Yow are always reckoned a great man in their books; but your last behaviour at Aberdeen will make them adore yow as one of their litle gods upon earth. When our letter came here from our friends in the north to show their friends here your acting so much for them, that we cabal’d for twenty-four hours drinking your health and Captain Grant’s. So, in short, I doe believe that there is none of your friends in this country but what would venter their lives for yow without asking questions.

"How soon I got your last letter I went to my Lord Broadalbaine’s tennents, I having got formerly intelligence that they receitted some of your country catell of the same mark and irons. After being exaimined, one of them declares that he got a brown blackish cow with a burning iron upon her hip in exchange of another cow from Donald Bane Begg. There is nothing remaining of the cow but the half of the hyde that the burning iron was one. This man is a son-in-law of Donald Bane Begg’s. There is one Donald M’Grigor declares he got at the same time a large brown cow from Donald Bane Begg in payment of mony he owed him. This Donald M’Grigor likeways declares that Donald had cows alongs with the cow he bought that had irons on verry like the irons I produced him, which was the irons sent to me be Cluery with Grigor Roy. I knew it was Query’s cows and yours that Donald Bane Begg had, so that I think shame to put hard, tho’ it were in your power and mine, to any of my Lord Broadalbaine’s tennents. While as yow have the actors with yourself, I doe not doubt if yow put hard to Donald Bane but he’ill find Cluery’s cow alive yet. I doe really think that ye should cause him pay the honest gentleman’s cows. Doe with your own lady’s cow as you think fitt; but sure Donald Bane was the stealler of her. Were he in this country I would make him pay both, otherways I would make him string for it. When ye send the horse, challanged in your country, belonging to my Lord Broadalbain’s tennant, be sure to send a sure hand with him that will carry back to yow the mare that was challanged in my Lord Broadalbain’s ground. Yow may assure yourself that there is nothing that yow will ask in reason in this country but what will be granted. I would send Grigor with the answer of your letter, if it were not that he is going in pursuance of a horse stolen from Robert Grant (Lurg). He swears that he will never face Straithspey till he have him, or payment for him. I trouble yow with no more at present, only that I offer my hearty service to yourself and lady; and I am, dear Sir,

"Your own,
"Ro. Roy.

"Colonel WILLIAM GRANT of Ballindalloch—Huse."


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