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Deeside Tales
Chapter II


“A band of fierce barbarians from the hills
Rushed like a torrent down upon the vales,
Sweeping our flocks and herds.
The shepherds fled
For safety and for succour.”
—Douglas Tragedy.

At no period in the history of the Highland clans was their turbulence greater than during the latter years of the reign of James VI. The Government in Scotland was weak, and the chiefs of the north set it almost at open defiance. James’s kingcraft consisted in arraying clan against clan, and so, as he thought, quelling their tumultuary dispositions, and checking their depredations without much trouble or expense to the Government This mistaken policy had the effect, as might have been foreseen, of increasing the bloodshed and spoliation it was intended to prevent, and of stirring up new animosities and sources of strife which eventually broke out into civil war in the reign of his unfortunate son, Charles I.

The head of the great house of Gordon, secretly favoured by the king, though openly discountenanced by his Council, affected almost regal state, and exercised supreme authority over the whole of the north. But when the king’s power waned, and that of the Government waxed strong, the Gordons became sulky and disaffected. Their chief was deprived of his commission of lieutenancy, which was conferred on his Protestant neighbour and kinsman, the Earl of Moray. This was the cause of a deadly feud that soon took the form of Protestant versus Catholic, and into which entered all the heat and bitterness of religious as well as political antagonism. Raids were unsparingly made upon the Forbeses, and into the bounds of Moray, and so great was the injury inflicted that it became a saying,

“The gneel, the Gordon, and the hoody craw,
Are the three want faes Moray ever aw.”

The despoiled clans, unable to defend themselves, applied to the Government for protection, and remonstrances were sent to the Marquis—as yet only Earl—of Huntly calling upon him to restrain the violence of his vassals. As head of the clan he was amenable for their behaviour, but means were found to evade this responsibility. Those who had fattened on the spoils of their enemies, or who had personal wrongs to avenge, were not to be checked in their career of spoil and vengeance by the authority either of the chief or of the law; and, casting off their allegiance, they, in the quaint phraseology of Spalding, “brak loose, and to the hills go they.”

These broken men committed the most frightful deeds of blood and spoil on all whom they fancied to have been in any way the cause of their ruin. When Huntly was again warned by the Government to keep his broken men in order, he virtually replied, “I have no authority over them; they have broken loose from their clan, and you have deprived me of my lieutenancy which alone gave me power to bring such offenders to justice. Restore the lieutenancy, and I will reduce them; without it, I am powerless.” Thus taunted, the Government applied to their accredited representative to take such measures as were necessary to put a stop to the rapine complained of.

Now, besides the broken men, who were of various clans, there was at this time a whole broken clan—the proscribed Macgregors. They had been bred to the profession of caterans for generations, and looked with suspicion on these new interlopers. Acting therefore on the king’s old policy of setting a thief to catch a thief, even the Protestant Earl of Moray did not scruple to make use of them, to get rid of some broken men of the Grants and Mackintoshes who were infesting his lands. Indeed, about this time these Macgregors hired themselves out to all and sundry who required such services, and were considered as a sort of guerrilla “Black Watch,” or Highland Constabulary, not inaptly styled “the beagles,” to hunt down and apprehend the broken men.

A band of these from the wilds of Rannoch were invited over to Deeside to try their hand on some desperadoes who had broken loose there, and for a time they did good service, not without considerable loss to their own ranks.

But it was the old story of Hengst and Horsa over again. Having performed the business for which they had been engaged, they refused to retire to their own country, and, being now in possession of the mountain fastnesses, they took to their hereditary trade of cattle-lifting with such skill and success, that the whole country around felt the cure to be worse than the disease—that the broken men themselves were not so bad as these “Highland limmers.” They knew all the passes, and were acquainted with all the transactions in the parts over which their calling extended. They were thus able to seize any opportunity that offered to carry off a booty. The glens of Cushnie, and the dens of Culbleen were favourite resorts; but when driven from these, as they often were, they always found a safe retreat in Glengaim and Morven. To each of these places they had assigned a character, very accurately observed and tersely expressed, “Cushnie for cauld, Culbleen for heat, and Gashanraich for heather.”

At length, however, Culbleen was made rather too hot for them. It so happened that a man of the name of John Thom, a general favourite in Cromar, was getting married, and according to the custom then prevalent, all his neighbours and well-wishers flocked to the wedding, which, in such cases, lasted for several days, the guests paying for their entertainment and thus often helping to set the bridegroom up in the world. The caterans hearing of this, and finding the country defenceless, assembled their whole force within the forest of Culbleen, whence they made a descent on the neighbouring territory, sweeping away the flocks and herds of all, and setting fire to the homesteads of such as they bore a special grudge against The indignation of the whole country was roused; a general muster of the inhabitants took place, who, seeing no other means of dislodging these marauders than by depriving them of their concealment and lurking places, set fire to the forest—an event which gave rise to this curious distich, thought to have been a satirical effusion of the cateran muse:—

“Culbleen was burnt, and Cromar harriet,
And dowie’s the day John Tam was marriet.”

The civil war now broke out, and the Macgregors at once cast in their lot with the Gordons and took up arms under the royal standard. During the Commonwealth they had to keep quiet, if not under close hiding; but it is probable that at the restoration they would again have fallen into their old ways had it not now been the interest of the house of Gordon, which was again in the ascendant, to keep them under proper restraint Partly as a means of doing so, and partly as a reward for their services in the late conflict, they received holdings, and some of them even gifts of land in Glengaim and Morven. This had a wonderful effect It was like putting a troublesome M.P. into office. They became weak as other men. Their houses and possessions rendered them liable to reprisals, and they now began to discover that it was their best policy not rashly to break the peace. There was, however, too much cateran blood in their veins to make them desirable or peaceful neighbours. They and their forefathers had traded in cattle in various ways; but though the glens of Morven were a perfect Goshen, and afforded ample scope for the legal exercise of their talents in that trade, yet for long they were sadly liable to an obliquity or obscuration of moral vision as to any obligatory distinction between meutn and tuum, especially in the matter of flocks and herds.

Though vassals of the Gordons, they still owed allegiance to the chief of their own clan; and once, at least, when their military services were required, it was found necessary to obtain the sanction of the celebrated Rob Roy, to an order from the Earl of Aboyne to his tenants of the name of Macgregor before they could be assembled in arms under the command of their landlord.

On another occasion (1715) Rob personally visited his kinsmen on Deeside, and marshalled them under his own standard, this time probably because he meant to play a Moabitish part in the rising. “The Macgregors to the spoil" was to be their roll under Mar; and accordingly, though ostensibly on the side of the rebels, they had determined not actively to oppose the great Aigyle, at all events if the victory seemed doubtful Rob hoped in this manner, on the one hand not to break with Argyle, who he knew possessed the power to ruin him, and on the other to secure an ample for it, took the father aside one day, and thus addressed him—“James, yon have been very kind to me, and I have something to propose to yon which I can do for you and yours. You have the finest boy there I ever saw; and you are spoiling him with that trash of books. Give the brave boy to me, and I will take him to the hills and make a fine gentleman of him.” With much difficulty the father evaded accepting such an offer without offending the generous, though mistaken feelings that prompted it. He pleaded the youth and feeble health of the boy, and the mother’s natural affection to have him under her own keeping and care. In after life the boy became an eminent medical practitioner in Edinburgh, and like many of his family, a great ornament to science. How small are the events that often determine our lives! “James Gregory, who thus narrowly escaped being his kinsman’s recruit, and in all probability his henchman, was afterwards professor of medicine in the college. He was rather of an irritable and pertinacious temper, and his friends were wont to remark when he showed any symptoms of these foibles, "Ah, this comes of not having been educated by Rob Roy.’” Sir W. Scott, who notices this anecdote in the introduction to Rob Roy, continues— "The connection between Rob Roy and his classical kinsman did not end with the period of Rob’s transient power. At a period considerably subsequent to the year 1715, he was walking in the Castlegate of Aberdeen, arm and arm with his bast, Dr. James Gregory, when the drums in the barracks suddenly beat to arms. If these lads are turning out,’ said Rob, taking French leave of his cousin with great composure, 'it is time for me to look after my safety.’ So saying, he dived down a close, and, as John Bunyan says, ‘was seen no more.’

The first of these anecdotes Scott heard from Dr. Gregory, “and the second rests on the recollection of an old man who was present when Rob took French leave of his literary cousin on hearing the drums beat” The occurrences are, however, variously related, but substantially as above booty for himself and his followers, whoever should win. This conduct is well stigmatised in the fine old ballad on the battle of Sherifiinuir, composed by the Rev. Murdoch M'Lennan, minister of Crathie:—

“Rob Roy be stood watch
On a hill for to catch
The booty, for aught that I saw, man;
For he ne’er advanced
From the place where he stanced,
Till nae mair was to do there at a’, man.”

Thus the Macgregors lived on through the revolution period, were out with Dundee at Killieciankie, and with Mar at or near Sherifiinuir, gradually cooling down from the fever heat of cattle-lifting to cattle-appropriation dll the ’45. Culloden, however, and the after measures of the Government by a sharp operation tended to cure the moral cataract with which their race had been afflicted, and to administer an antidote against its recurrence in all time coming.

To put a stop to so lucrative a trade as cattle-lifting required vigorous action on the part of the Government; and to change the dispositions of a people who had long pursued a course of life in defiance of the law of the realm necessitated a continuance of this action for a number of years. During this period the Highlands experienced all the evils of a state of transition. The magistrates enforced the law with much rigour, and those against whom it was directed esteemed it patriotic to resist their action as far as was in their power, and to resent it as they had formerly been accustomed to resent private injuries done to them.

For some years, therefore, the country was in a condition not unlike that in which unhappy Ireland is at the present day. What Fenianism now is to the latter country, the cause of the Stewarts then was to the former; and many daring crimes were committed, the perpetrators of which, aided by the sympathy of the general population, often escaped the utmost vigilance of the law. A case of this kind will serve to show the unsettled state of the country, and illustrate some popular superstitions which, now forgotten, then played a considerable part in directing the actions of individuals.

On the left bank of the bum of Logie, Cromar, there was at the time referred to a small hamlet called Bellastraid, the occupant of the principal house in which, called by way of pre-eminence the Ha’ o’ Bellastraid, was a duineuasal, of the name of Cattanach, who probably exercised some sort of superiority over the inhabitants of the clachan. Cattanach had been out in the ’45, and for this and some other contraventions of the law he was wanted by the authorities in Aberdeen. He had suffered some little annoyance from the attempts made to apprehend him, but these proving futile encouraged him sometimes to put those in quest of him at open defiance, and earned for him the reputation of being a dangerous and reckless character, so that few cared to meddle with him. At length a messenger-at-arms, named Cuthbert, a man as daring as Cattanach himself, and the terror of evil doers far and wide, was despatched from Aberdeen to secure him alive or dead. With the intention of surprising his victim early in the morning, he made his arrival at the hostelry of Milton of Logie, on the opposite bank of the stream, late at night Though he preserved a strict incognito, the object of his visit did not escape the suspicion of some who had marked his arrival, and word was sent to Cattanach that he would better be on his guard, as a very suspicious customer had just made his appearance at the inn.

He received the news in bed, expressed the utmost unconcern, but at early dawn was astir. Having carefully loaded his Culloden musket, he swung it behind his back under his plaid, and sallied forth, making straight for the inn and crossing the bum by the stepping stones.

He found the stranger just in the act of issuing from the door way, and addressed him thus—

“Sharp morning this, sir. What may ye be after to-day?”

“Who are you,” replied Cuthbert, haughtily, “that you claim a right to know?”

“I am Cattanach of Bellastraid, and I believe I have a right to know,” responded the other with defiance in his looks.

Seeing that resistance was intended, Cuthbert drew a horse pistol, and aiming at Cattanach drew the trigger. Whether his weapon had been tampered with over night is not known, but a little flash in the pan was all the result.

“Ha, ha, my man,” said Cattanach, “is that what ye’re after? Well let you see better ga’an graith here.” So saying he swung round the Culloden musket, and shot the officer of the law through the heart

Cuthbert fell right across the threshold, and lay there till due notice of what had happened was sent to the authorities.

It was one of the superstitions of the time that, if the perpetrator of a murder could by any chance see through beneath the body of his victim, he would escape the punishment due to his crime. So flu: from proving always true, this belief had sometimes even led to the detection of the murderer, when he might otherwise have escaped. Cases have been known where, during the funeral of a person who had met his death by foul means, the culprit was detected by displaying some anxiety to look under the coffin.

Cattanach, however, had firm faith in the superstitious notion. It shows how great at that time was the popular sympathy with the most criminal of law-breakers, that Cattanach had but little difficulty in prevailing upon one of his neighbours, a man of the name of MacCombie, tenant of the Davan, to accompany him to the inn, and raise the dead body of Cuthbert that he might see under it Having performed this feat to his satisfaction, he retired to his own house, firmly believing that he had stolen a march on human power and got on the leeside of destiny. Next day, however, the intelligence that a small body of dragoons was approaching rather put his confidence to flight; and he took off to hiding with all speed, succeeded in evading all the parties sent against him, and at last found the means of escaping to a foreign land, a circumstance which the superstitious still aver was owing to his having seen under the body of his victim.

From a belief that an evil fate pursued those that took up their abode in a house once occupied by a murderer, the Ha’ o’ Bellastraid was never afterwards used as a human habitation, but was converted into an outhouse, which, within the recollection of the present worthy tenant, did duty as a barn, and, as he is able to tell, possessed a flight of steps to the door indicative of the height of dignity from which it had fallen.

This state of things could not long continue; the arm of the law was too strong and too active, and a few years brought round a more settled condition. It may be safely affirmed that before ten years from the battle of Culloden had passed, the smouldering embers of the rebellion had died out, leaving behind it only a residuum of sentiment too etherial ever again to move to action.

Henceforth the Macgregors were altered men, mostly distinguishable from their neighbours by a more generally marked duplicity of character, and a more romantic and chivalrous style of deportment Even these traces of their ancient descent gradually softened down, but there were one or two traits that they retained to the last—an innate aversion to manual labour, and a strong desire to act the gentleman. “Shall the sons of Macgregor be weavers?” was as truly the leading sentiment of the race at the opening of the nineteenth as at the beginning of the previous century


 


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