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Gairloch in North-West Ross-Shire
Part I.—Records and Traditions of Gairloch
Chapter XII.—Expulsion of the M'Leods from Gairloch


THE stories of the various contests, extending over more than a century, during which the M'Leods were gradually expelled from Gairloch, fill a large page in the traditional history of the parish.

We have seen how Allan M'Leod, laird of Gairloch, was assassinated (along with his two little boys) by his jealous brothers, and how this led to the commission of fire and sword being granted by the king about the year 1480, directing Hector Roy Mackenzie to exterminate the Gairloch M'Leods. It must have been in Hector Roy's time that Ruaridh M'Leod was driven from the island in Loch Maree which bears his name, for we find that before Hector Roy's death, and after the fight at Beallach Glasleathaid and other skirmishes, the M'Leods were restricted to one-third of Gairloch, being the parts to the east and south-east of the hill called the Crasg, so that they must from that time have only retained the two strongholds known as the Dun of Gairloch and the Uamh nam Freiceadain (Part L, chaps. vii. and ix.).

The following incident seems to have occurred during the struggles in which Hector Roy took part, and before the M'Leods had been ousted from the islands of Loch Maree.

At this time a Mackenzie, known as Murchadh Riabhach na Chuirce, or Brindled Murdo of the Bowie-knife, lived at Letterewe. The M'Leods still held the fortalice or crannog called Eilean Grudidh, in Loch Maree, about a mile distant from Letterewe. One of these M'Leods, named MacJain Dhuibh, or Black John's son, crossed over one day in his boat to the house of Brindled Murdo at Letterewe, when the latter was away on an expedition among the hills. Only the women had stayed at home, and M'Leod is charged with a foul deed. He remained at Letterewe over night. Next day Brindled Murdo returned home, and finding what had happened, attacked M'Leod, who, becoming disabled, fled up the hills behind Letterewe. Seeing that Murdo was outrunning him, and knowing that his end had come, M'Leod stopped, and, as his pursuer approached, entreated that he might die in sight of his beloved Loch Maree. Brindled Murdo of the Bowie-knife refused his petition, and slew him where he stood, and there they buried him. The place is called to this day Feitn Mhic Iain Dhuibh, i.e. "the bog of Black John's son." On the six-inch ordnance map it is called Glac Mhic Iain Dhuibh, or "the dell of Black John's son."

During the time of John Glassich Mackenzie and his two elder sons, there are no records of the warfare with the M'Leods. It seems possible that both Hector and Alastair Roy, sons of John Glassich, were slain by M'Leods of Gairloch, though some suppose that their deaths were the result of the continued hostility of their relatives of Kintail.

About the time that John Roy Mackenzie, youngest son of John Glassich, came to Gairloch, Ruaridh Mac Allan M'Leod, head of the M'Leods of Gairloch, who had the soubriquet of Nimhneach, or "venomous," committed a fearful crime. It will be remembered that John Roy's deceased brother, Alastair Roy, had married the daughter of Iain MacGhille Challum M'Leod, laird of Raasay (called Iain na Tuaighe, or John of the Axe), by his marriage with Janet, daughter of John Mackenzie, lord of Kintail. Iain MacGhille Challum had given great offence to his clan, the Siol Mhic Ghille Challum, by marrying his daughter to a Gairloch Mackenzie. After the death of Janet Mackenzie, his first wife, Iain MacGhille Challum had married a sister of his relative, the before-named Ruaridh Mac Allan M'Leod. There were sons by both marriages. Ruaridh MacAllan, taking advantage of the discontent of the Siol Mhic Ghille Challum, plotted the destruction of MacGhille Challum and his sons by his first marriage, hoping that his own nephew, the eldest son of MacGhille Challum's second marriage, would then inherit Raasay. Ruaridh MacAllan induced MacGhille Challum, and his sons by the first marriage, to meet him at the island of Isay, in Waternish, on the pretence that he desired to consult them on matters of importance. After entertaining them at a feast he retired to another room, and then caused them to be summoned singly to his presence. As each came forward he was assassinated. The eldest son of the second marriage, then a young boy, who was in an inner apartment, hearing the dying screams of one of his half-brothers, called out in an agony, "That's my brother's cry!" "Never mind," said the ruthless Ruaridh MacAllan, "his screams will make you laird of Raasay." Donald Gregory, in his history, says that the Mackenzies of Gairloch pursued Ruaridh Mac Allan, in revenge for the murder of Iain Mac Ghille Challum's sons, whose mother had been Janet Mackenzie, and whose sister had been the wife of John Roy's brother. At this time there was a great feud between Ruaridh M'Leod of the Lews, assisted by Neil Angusson M'Leod of Assynt and by the blood-stained Ruaridh Mac Allan of Gairloch on the one hand, and Colin Mackenzie, lord of Kintail (assisted by other chiefs), fighting on behalf of his cousin Torquil Connanach M'Leod, on the other hand. It is unnecessary in these pages to state the origin and course of this dispute. Donald .Gregory tells us that John Roy Mackenzie, impelled no doubt by the motive of revenge already mentioned, was most active on the side of his relative of Kintail. In June 1569 the Regent Murray and his council sat at Inverness, and put a stop for the time being to the feud so far as the leaders were concerned, but their intervention did not make an end of John Roy's vengeful proceedings against Ruaridh Mac Allan M'Leod of Gairloch. The warfare between these chieftains is said to have been long and fierce. Ultimately Ruaridh Mac Allan was slain—probably shot—by the great MacRae archer, Domhnull Odhar Mac Iain Leith, of whom more anon. It seems to have been nearly the end of the sixteenth century before John Roy finally expelled the M'Leods from Gairloch. They had long since abandoned the Dun of Gairloch, and were now driven from the Uamh nam Freiceadain, their last stronghold in the parish.

The savage nature of this prolonged struggle is illustrated by the tradition, that a number of M'Leods were hung on gallows erected on a hillock a little .to the north of the Free Church at Kenlochewe. The hillock is called to this day Cnoc a Chrochadair, or "the hangman's hillock." They say that Domhnull Odhar took part in the capture of the M'Leods who were executed here.

It was after the expulsion of the M'Leods that the affair of Leac nan Saighead occurred. Many of the M'Leods who had been driven from Gairloch had settled in Skye. A number of young men of the clan were invited by their chief to pass Hogmanay night in his castle at Dunvegan. There was a large gathering. In the kitchen there was an old woman, who was always occupied in carding wool. She was known as Mor Ban, or Fair Sarah, and was supposed to be a witch. After dinner was over at night the men began to drink, and when they had passed some time thus they sent into the kitchen for the Mor Ban. She came, and sat down in the hall with the men. She drank one or two glasses, and then she said it was a poor thing for the M'Leods to be deprived of their own lands in Gairloch and to live in comparative poverty in Skye. "But," says she, addressing the whole party, "prepare yourselves and start to-morrow for Gairloch, sail in the black birlinn, and you shall regain Gairloch. I shall be a witness of your success when you return." The men being young, and not over-burdened with wisdom, believed her, because they thought she had the power of divination. They set sail in the morning for Gairloch, and the black galley was full of the M'Leods. It was evening when they came into the loch, and they dare not risk landing on the mainland, for they remembered that the descendants of Domhnull Greannach (a great Macrae) were still there, and they knew their prowess only too well. They therefore turned to the south side of the loch, and fastened their birlinn to Fraoch Eilean, in the shelter opposite Leac-nan-Saighead, between Shieldaig and Bad-achro. They decided to wait there till morning, then disembark and walk round the head of the loch. But all the movements of the M'Leods had been well watched. Domhnull Odhar Maclain Leith and his brother Iain Odhar Maclain Leith, the celebrated Macrae archers (sons of Iain Liath, mentioned in Part I., chap, xi.) knew the birlinn of the M'Leods, and they determined to oppose their landing. They walked round by Shieldaig and posted themselves before daylight at the back of the Leac, a protecting rock overlooking Fraoch Eilean. The steps on which they stood at the back of the rock are still pointed out. Donald Odhar, being a short man, took the higher of the two steps, and Iain the other. Standing on these steps they crouched down in the shelter of the rock, whence they commanded a full view of the island on which the M'Leods were lying here and there, while the Macrae heroes were invisible from the island. They were both celebrated shots, and had their bows and arrows with them. As soon as the day dawned they opened fire on the M'Leods; a number of them were killed before their comrades were even aware of the direction whence the fatal arrows came. The M'Leods endeavoured to answer the fire, but not being able to see their foes, their arrows took no effect. In the heat of the fight one of the M'Leods climbed the mast of the birlinn, for a better sight of the position of the foe. Iain Odhar took his deadly aim at him when near the top of the mast. The shaft pierced his body and pinned him to the mast. "Oh," says Donald, "you have sent a pin through his broth." So the slaughter continued, and the remnant of the M'Leods hurried into the birlinn. They cut the rope and turned her head seawards, and by this time only two of them were left alive. So great was their hurry to escape that they left all the bodies of their slain companions on the island. The rumour of the arrival of the M'Leods had spread during the night, and other warriors, such as Fionnla Dubh na Saighead and Fear Shieldaig, were soon at the scene of action, but all they had to do was to assist in the burial of the dead M'Leods. Pits were dug, into each of which a number of the dead bodies were thrown, and mounds were raised over them, which remain to this day as any one may see. The name Leac-nan-Saighead means "the flat stone of the arrows."

Donald Odhar is credited with a similar feat to that performed by his brother Iain at Leac-nan-Saighead. It was probably before the affair at that place that a birlinn, manned by M'Leods, came in to the bay, now called the Bay of Charlestown, to reconnoitre Gairloch. Donald Odhar was on the hill behind Flowerdale, called Craig a Chait, and as usual carried his bow and arrows. He saw the Macleods enter the bay; one of them climbed the mast of the vessel for a better view, when Donald Odhar, taking advantage of the comparatively distinct mark thus presented, let fly an arrow with unerring aim, and pinned the unfortunate M'Leod to the mast. The distance traversed by the arrow cannot have been less than half a mile.

Fionnla Dubh na Saighead was a relative of Donald Odhar and Iain Odhar, and was also of the Macraes of Kintail. Finlay usually lived at Melvaig. As a marksman he was on a par with Donald Odhar. In his day young M'Leod, laird of Assynt, came to Gairloch in his birlinn to ask for a daughter of John Roy in marriage. He was refused, and set off northwards on his return voyage in his birlinn, which was manned with sixteen oars. They rowed quite close to the land round Rudha Reidh, the furthest out headland of the North point; Rudha Reidh was then known as Seann Rudha, a name which is still sometimes given to it Fionnla Dubh na Saighead sat on a rock as the birlinn passed. He called out, "Whence came the heroes?" They replied, "We came from Gairloch." "What were you doing there?" said Finlay. "We were asking in marriage the daughter of Mackenzie of Gairloch for this young gentleman." "Did you get her?" said Finlay. They replied, "Oh, no." Finlay dismissed them with a contemptuous gesture and an insulting expression. They passed on their way without molesting him, because they had no arms with them. Young M'Leod brooded over the insult he had received from Finlay Macrae, who was well known to him by repute. He soon returned with his sixteen-oared birlinn, manned by the choicest warriors of Assynt, to take vengeance on Finlay, who noticed the galley and guessed who were its occupants. He called for one Chisholm, his brother-in-arms, and the two of them proceeded to a leac, or flat stone, close to the edge of the low cliff about a mile north of Melvaig ; the leac is still pointed out. They reached this place before the Macleods could effect a landing. On the way the Chisholm said to Finlay, "You must leave all the speaking to me." As the birlinn drew near Chisholm called out, " What do you want?" "We want Fionnla Dubh na Saighead." "You won't get him, or thanks," said Chisholm; "go away in peace." The M'Leods began to threaten them. " If that is the way," said Chisholm, " let every man look out for himself." The contest (cath) began. Finlay and Chisholm were well sheltered at the back of the leac. A number of the M'Leods were killed by the arrows of the two heroes on shore, whilst they themselves remained uninjured. The M'Leods, finding their losses so severe, soon thought that discretion wras the better part of valour, and, turning their birlinn northwards, departed for their own country. They never again molested Finlay.

There is an elevated place on the north point of Gairloch, called Bac an Leth-choin, or "the hillock of the cross-bred dog." About mile to the east, and much lower, is a ridge called Druim Cam Neill, or the "ridge of the cairn of Neil." Fionnla Dubh na Saighead one day spied a man named Neil M'Leod near his own house at Melvaig, at the south-west corner of the North Point. Finlay fired an arrow at the man and wourided him. Neil, who was a swift runner, fled eastwards over the high ground. Finlay gave chase, accompanied by a cross-bred dog, a sort of lurcher, which followed on the track of Neil. When Finlay reached the Bac an Leth-choin he caught sight of Neil, and shot him dead at the Druim Cam Neill. Neil was buried where he fell, and a cairn was raised over his grave. Both the Bac an Leth-choin and the Druim Cam | Neill are shown to the north of Inverasdale on the six-inch ordnance map. Some remains of Neil's cairn are still pointed out.

It would seem that the Gairloch M'Leods did not soon give up all hope of regaining their former territory, for we find that in 1610 a severe engagement took place between Mackenzies and M'Leods at Lochan an Fheidh (sometimes wrongly spelt Ix>chan a* Neigh), on the west side of Scoor Dubh, above Glen Torridon, just past the southern corner of Gairloch. The Mackenzies, under the leadership of Alastair Breac, John Roy's second son, and assisted by Donald Odhar and other MacRaes, completely routed the M'Leods, who were commanded by Iain MacAllan Mhic Ruaridh (now the representative of Allan M'Leod, formerly laird of Gairloch), accompanied by his uncle John Tolmach M'Leod. Iain MacAllan was taken prisoner; many of his followers were killed, seventeen or eighteen taken prisoners, and the few who escaped with John Tolmach were pursued out of the district. The slain M'Leods were buried on the field of battle, where their graves are still pointed out; nettles are growing about them to-day.

In August 1611 Murdo Mackenzie, third son of John Roy, with a party of* Gairloch men, set sail for the Isle of Skye in a vessel well I stocked with wine and provisions, with the object of carrying off the daughter of Donald Dubh MacRuaridh, a cousin of Iain MacAllan. A marriage between John Roy's son and Donald Dubh's daughter would have vested the ancient rights of the Gairloch M'Leods in the Mackenzies. Some say that Murdo's intention was also to seize John Tolmach M'Leod, who had escaped from Lochan an Fheidh. The ship was driven by a storm into a sheltered bay off Kirkton of Raasay, where young M'Leod, the laird of Raasay, at that time Tesided. Here Murdo Mackenzie cast anchor. Young Raasay hearing that Murdo was on board, resolved to attempt to secure him by stratagem, in order to get him exchanged for his relative Iain MacAllan Mhic Ruaridh, still a prisoner in Gairloch. Raasay, with Gille-challum Mor and twelve men, started for the ship, leaving orders for all the men in Raasay to be in readiness to go out to their assistance in small boats as soon as the alarm should be given. Murdo Mackenzie received his visitors in the most unsuspecting manner, and hospitably entertained them with as much wine and other viands as they could consume, sitting down with them himself. All his men joined in the revelry, except four heroes, who, feeling a little suspicious, abstained from drinking. Ultimately most of the j party became so drunk that they retired to sleep below deck. Murdo Mackenzie remained sitting between Raasay and Gillie-challum Mor, when Raasay suddenly started up and told him he must become his prisoner. Murdo in a violent passion threw Raasay down, exclaiming, "I would scorn to be your prisoner." In the struggle which ensued one of Raasay's men drew his dirk and stabbed Murdo Mackenzie through the body, and he fell overboard. Being a good swimmer, he was making for Sconser on the opposite shore of Skye, when the Raasay men, who had heard the row, coming out in their small boats, pelted Murdo with stones and drowned him. The four heroes who had abstained from drink now fought nobly for their lives. The other members of Mackenzie's party were all slain, but not a soul of the Raasay men ultimately escaped alive from the dirks of the four abstaining Mackenzies. The small boats surrounded the vessel, and the Raasay men attempted to board her, but were thrown back, and slain without mercy by her four gallant defenders, one of whom, Hector MacKenneth, was however killed by a chance shot or arrow from one of the boats. The other three managed to cut their anchor cable, hoist their canvas, and sail away before a fresh breeze, with their horrible cargo of dead bodies lying about the deck. As soon as they were out of danger they threw the bodies of Raasay and his men overboard. It is said that none of the bodies were ever found except that of Gille-challum Mor, which came ashore on Raasay. The bodies of the dead Mackenzies, and of Bayne of Tulloch who had accompanied them, were taken to Lochcarron and buried there. The three heroes who survived were Iain Mac-Eachainn Chaoil, Iain MacCoinnich Mhic Eachainn, and Coinneach MacSheumais; the first named lived for thirty years after, dying in 1641, the second died in 1662, and the third in 1663—all very old men. This seems to have been the last conflict between Mackenzies and M'Leods, and the Mackenzies have ever since held undisputed possession of Gairloch.


 


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