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In the Shadow of Cairngorm
V. The Cairns and their Traditions


CAIRN is from the Gaelic Carn, a heap of stones (root, car: hard). In its original sense, it is in common use for hills, big and little, from Cairngorm downwards. In its secondary sense it is applied to artificial objects, such as heaps of rough undressed stones of all sorts. Sometimes cairns were set up as landmarks. More often they were erected as memorials of persons, and of notable events. We find examples of the custom in the Old Testament, as in the cases of Achan, and of Absalom (Josh. vii., 26; II. Sam. XVIII., 17). The custom also prevailed in our own land. Ossian often refers to it. Burns, in "Tam o’ Shanter," names several cairns passed by Tam in his famous ride; and who does not remember Muschat’s Cairn that figures so prominently in Scott’s "Heart of Midlothian." Cairns were also largely sepulchral, and, while they may have been intended for the protection of the remains of the dead from wolves and wild beasts, they must also have had some connection with the religious beliefs of the people of those far-off times. The Gaelic saying, Cuiridh mi clach air do charn "I will put a stone on your cairn," connects both worlds, and expresses not only regard for the living, but reverence for the dead. Cairns are to be found of all sizes, from the heap of stones by the roadside marking a death or murder, to the huge mass on the hilltop covering the grave of some mighty chief whose name and achievements are forgotten. In this parish they are very numerous. Hundreds may be seen on the moors and hills, and many more are hidden from sight in the deep heather and the dense woods. Of the prehistoric cairns the most notable is Carn-na feola, the C. of the Flesh, on the moor to the east of the Mill of Kincardine. It stands on a terrace, commanding a wide view, and has many smaller cairns and remains of hut circles round about. As marking it out from the rest, it is surrounded by a rampart of earth. In the centre was a great heap of stones, which contained a stone cist about four feet square, covered by a flagstone. It is not known when it was opened, but thirty-five years ago there might be seen the remains of at least three interments, a man, woman, and child. Some time after the skulls, which were quite entire, were carried off. There is another cairn, with the remains of a cist, a little further east, at Lag-ghurr the Hollow of Gore. There were also two fine examples of so-called Druidical circles in one of the Pytonlish fields, which were unfortunately removed as interfering with the cultivation of the land. Several of the stones may be seen lying at the roadside, and one of them has some peculiar markings. The existence of so many cairns and other prehistoric remains in the district indicate that there must have been a considerable population in these old times, and that the people, however rude, had made some advance in civilisation.

Cairns were often erected as memorials of deaths by accident or violence. We have an example of the first at the south end of the Balliefurth plantation. It is called Carn Bean-na-Lurigin, C. of the Wife of Lurg. Some sixty years ago Mrs Macdonald, Lurg, was returning from the carding-mill with a load of wool. At this spot the horse took fright, the cart was overturned, and Mrs Macdonald smothered under the wool. Other accidents have happened at the same place, which is popularly believed to be haunted. As an example of death by violence, the cairn at Richailleach, in Tulloch, may be mentioned. About 1772 there fell out a great dispute between two neighbonring farmers, John M’Gibbon, or Cumming, Tontiri, and John Grant, Richailleach, about marches. One day in May M’Gibbon was mending his potato fences on the hill, where some land had been reclaimed (called in Gaelic Codhach. Richailleach’s son came to him complaining that he had ill-used his sheep. The dispute waxed hot. From words they were like to come to blows. M’Gibbon warned Grant to keep off, but in vain. At last, provoked by his taunts and insults, he took up his gun, which he had lying beside him, and fired, meaning to scare rather than to hurt the young man. Unfortunately, the shot took effect in the thigh, and Grant fell to the ground. M’Gibbon, it is said, did what he could to staunch the wound, and then fled. Grant not returning home, search was made, and, by means of his collie, he was found lying dead in a pool of blood. M’Gibbon was at once charged with the crime, hut he could not he found. He is said to have hid for some time in a hole under a tree in the Doire-gharbh, rough grove, near Loch Garten, and then to have left the country. Some thirty years after, the late John M’Queen, when serving in the army in Holland, went out one evening for a stroll. He came upon a band of men working at an embankment. As he stood watching them, one of them, much to his surprise, accosted him in Gaelic. "Where do you come from?" he asked. The answer was "Scotland." ‘What part?" "Strathspev." "Where in Strathspey?" "Glenmore, in Kincardine." The name brought up dear memories of the past, and, with a trembling lip, the old man said, Am bheil na tre chraobhan chaorainn fathasd ann Buchonich ? " Are the three rowan trees still at Buchonich?" a farm in Glenmore. The answer was "Yes they are standing there yet." More would have been said, but at that moment the drum beat, and M’Queen had to hurry back to camp. It is supposed that this poor exiled Highlander was John M’Gibbon. There is a cairn in Glenmore called Carn Donull bàn Bhailechaolais, C. of Fair Donald of Ballachulish. Donald was a notorious raider, and his name is still remembered in Lochaber. "His father was a Cameron, of the Glen-Nevis family ; his mother was a Mackenzie ; but, being illegitimate, he took the name of his mother. He had a half-brother, who was for many years ferryman at Ballachulish, and who, having lost an eye, was known as the portair cam, ‘the one-eyed ferryman.’ He was famous in his day for his powers of second-sight and as a proficient in all sorts of diablerie "—(" Nether Lovhaher ").

Donald had made a raid into Moray without success. Passing Lurg on the way back, the party carried off a bull. It is said that the English in an excursion in Bruce’s days were obliged, after much toil and loss, to retreat with no other spoil than a lame, half-starved bull, which they had picked up at Tranent. "Is this all yon have got?" said Earl Warenne; "by my faith, I never saw dearer beef!" Donald Bain might have said the same, and with good reason. The raiders were pursued. They had rested in Glenmore, had roasted the bull, and were carousing merrily in the barn, when their revels were roughly stopped. The door was forced, and they were challenged to surrender. Donald cried to his men to keep to their own side of the house, for he wanted peace. But Lurg’s servant, who had a grudge against him, took advantage of the confusion and shot him with a pistol. He was buried at the back of the barn, where his cairn stands to this day. In the upper part of Glenmore, lying between Allt Mor and Allt-na-Cisde, there is a ridge which bears the name of Bathaich Fiontag, "The Byre of Fiontag." From its commanding position it was used as a post of outlook by the watchers in the days of the raiders, as it was afterwards by John Roy when in hiding. Alan Grant of Tulloch, who acted as a warden of the marches, had an encounter here with some Lochaber men, in which one of the party fell. There are two headstones which mark his grave. The man was a Cameron, and his death led to a blood-fend. His father and brother set out to avenge his death. They came to Glenmore, but Alan was not there. They passed on, and at Caiplich they halted. The father would go no further, but the son said he would go on to the Ailnack, as he wanted to see his sweetheart. So they parted. Alan was .at the time posted at the "Feith," a place near the Crasg, in the Braes of Abernethy. He spied young Cameron, and went to meet him, calling out, "Hold yourself my prisoner." But Cameron pressed on. When near enough, he took aim at Alan, but his gun missed fire. Alan cried out, "It is vain for you to shoot at me, as lead has no power over me." On this Cameron tore a silver button from his coat and thrust it into his gun, when Alan, dreading the result, fired at him, and he fell dead on the spot. The stone on which he had rested his gun was splashed with his blood, and it is said the red mark remains to this day. Like Rizzio’s blood, though washed away it always re-appears. The place bears the name of Straan-Chamronach. Cameron’s father returned home broken-hearted. Like other Celts, he poured forth his grief in song. One verse of his lament for his son runs as follows

"Dh ‘fhaodainn bhi cinnte, gun robh pairt don an-nair, 
Ge do ruidheadh gu luadh,
Do ghabh mi a chead bhuan, an Caiplich dhiot."

"My foreboding was sure that the evil hour was following thee fast when I bade thee the long good-bye at Caiplich." There is a cairn at Glaic Bothain, below the Eagle’s Cliff on Cairngorm, called Archie’s Cairn. About the beginning of the century, two young men, William Fraser—commonly called "Foxie" Fraser, from his father being a fox hunter— and Archie Fyfe, Sleighich, were watching a fox den at night. Somehow Fyfe’s gun slipped down the bank, and in pulling it back it went off, and the shot wounded him mortally. He lived long enough to declare that it was an accident, and that his comrade was not to blame; but all the same, there were suspicious of foul play, and Fraser soon after left the country. It is said the party who carried the corpse home threw the gun that had proved so unlucky into Loch Ghobhlach, between Alt-bheithir and Sleighich.

Cairns used to be sometimes set up at places where funerals rested (cf. Tylor). On the old road from Glenbroun, at the top of the ridge where Abernethy comes in sight, there is a notable cairn. What distinguishes it from others is that it has an oaken cross, which bore initials of a name and date. It is called Crois pharruig-an-Álean, "The Cross of Patrick of Ailean" (G. aile, a plain, is obsolete (cf. Alvie, the Plain of Birches), but álean, the diminutive, a green, remains as a place name). Patrick Grant once lived at the Ailean on the Dorback, but he was obnoxious to his neighbour, Lurg, who, like Ahab of old, coveted his land. Lurg tried various means to get rid of him, but failed. Then he hired a certain notorious Peter Bain, Inchtomach, to do his dirty work. Peter was as cunning as he was unscrupulous. He got some men to waylay Grant as he was passing Loch-an-Spioraid, and then when they were carrying him off to drown him, he suddenly came on the scene and stopped them, crying out, "What are you doing to my good friend Ailan?" They said that he had a quarrel with Lurg, and that he must die. Peter pledged his word that if they let Ailan go he would see that he would do what Lurg wanted. The result was that Ailan had to give up his farm and to move to a place in the parish of Kirkmichael. When he died, he craved to be buried with his fathers. Where the funeral rested, the cross was put up, and there it stands to this day, grey and worn, battered by a thousand storms. On the old road from Glenmore by the Crasg to Kincardine, there are several funeral cairns. One near Tom-na-mor-laoich, the Hill of the Heroes, is called C. an-leinibh, the Cairn of the Infant. Another is called C. an Tuairnear, the Turners’ Cairn. Turners were men of importance in the old time, and they are frequently named in songs and sgeulachds. There was a Peter Murray, a turner, at Lettoch so late as 1811. Near the march between Beglan and Bad-ghiuthais, there is a cairn called C. Bean-Ruighluich, the C. of the Goodwife of Riluich. This was Christian Robertson, the wife of James Stewart, forester of Glenmore, a notable woman, who died about 1780. There are cairns marking the places where the bodies of the soldiers lost in the storm of 1804 were found; and at Straanliath, above Sleighich, there are three cairns which mark where the funeral party had rested who were bearing three of the bodies from the hill. There is a C. an Lisich near Tontiri (old form Dundiri), on the old Tulloch road. The Lisichs were a sept of the Macphersons, probably called after some noted ancestor of the name of Gillice. The designation is in use to this day. In Glenmore there is a stone called Leac Staingean, which marks one of those love tragedies which the balladists were fond of commemorating. Mary Macintyre was the flower of Glenmore. She dwelt with her mother and only brother, who loved her dearly. They wished her to marry a farmer of good position, but her heart had been given to a lover from Kincardine. Her brother suspected there was something wrong, and watched. He found that the lovers met in secret. Mary was pressed to give up her sweetheart, but would not. Neither arguments nor threats could prevail upon her. So long as he was faithful to her, she would be faithful to him. Her brother, mad with rage and jealousy, laid a foul plot. One night, when he knew there was to be a meeting, he shut up his sister. Then he dressed himself in her clothes, and took his stand at the trysting place, under the shadow of a fir tree, clutching his dirk. The lover appeared, and came forward with eager steps, but instead of the embrace he expected, he was stabbed to the heart. The murderer hid for some time in Creagan-doire-mheann, C. of the Thicket of the Kids. He was never brought to trial. The maiden died of a broken heart. Her spirit was said to haunt the trysting tree and the grave of her lover.

"‘Yestreen I dream’d a doleful dream;
I fear there will be sorrow !
I dream’d I pull’d the birk sae green,
With my true love on Yarrow.’

"'I’ll read your dream, my sister dear,
Your dream of dule and sorrow;
Ye pull’d the birk for your true love,-
He’s kill’d, he’s kill’d on Yarrow.’

"She kiss’d his lips, she kaim’d his hair,
As oft she had done before, O;
Syne with a crack her heart it brak,
On the dowie Dens of Yarrow."


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