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Gairloch in North-West Ross-Shire
Part I.—Records and Traditions of Gairloch
Chapter XIII.—Alastair Breac, and his Son and Grandson


ALEXANDER, second son of John Roy Mackenzie, succeeded his father in 1628 as chief of Gairloch, his elder brother having died without male issue during the father's lifetime. Alexander was known as Alastair Breac; the soubriquet "breac " means "pock-pitted," and had reference to traces of smallpox, then a terrible scourge in the Highlands. He was fifty years of age when he succeeded his father. He was a very tall man, being as we saw in Part L, chap, xi., a head above all his brothers, who were themselves fine men. Not only was he mighty in stature, but he was also a renowned warrior. It was he who led the Mackenzies in the battle at Lochan an Fheidh in Glen Torridon, described in our last chapter, when the M'Leods were completely routed; and he is said to have been his father's principal assistant and agent in finally expelling the M'Leods from Gairloch. He is described as having been "a valiant worthy gentleman."

He was twice married, and had twelve children. He added by purchase or arrangement to the family estates. He seems to have mostly resided on Eilean Suthainn in Loch Maree, where he died; his father's house and garden on Eilean Ruaridh were still in existence in his days, and he certainly used at times the old Temple house at Flowerdale.

In the days of Alastair Breac, Gairloch was still subject to raids, especially by cattle-lifters from Lochaber. The Loch Broom men used often to assist the people of Gairloch in repelling invaders. The trysting-place of the Gairloch and Lochaber men was at the spring or well just below the present road at the head of Glen Dochartie. The present road has buried the well, but the water is still there.

There lived a man in Lochaber in those days called Donald, the son of Black Donald. He was a cross man, and a choice thief. He had a brother known as Iain Geal Donn, or White-brown John, and there was only one other man in all Scotland who was a better "lifter" of cattle than these two. Donald sent word to Alastair Breac, laird of Gairloch, that he would " take spoil of him, and no thanks to him." On a previous occasion Donald had been foiled in an attempt to rob Gairloch. Alastair Breac sent for Alastair Buidhe Mackay, from Strath Oykell in Sutherlandshire, who was the strongest and most valiant man he could hear of in the three counties, and him he appointed captain of his guard. Iain Geal Donn came with his men to An Amilt, in Easter Ross, and there they " lifted " eleven cows and a bull. They came with their spoil through Strath Vaich and Strath Conan to a place called Sgaird-ruadh, or Scardroy, where they stayed the night. It was they who gave this name to the place, because they had pushed the beasts so hard that blood came from them there in the night. Alastair Buidhe Mackay had a Lochaber lad for his servant, and it was this lad who told him for certain that the thieves were stopping that night at a shieling bothie at Scardroy. Mackay and his servant hurried away to Scardroy. There he put the muzzle of his gun to the lad's body, and made him swear to be faithful to him. They moved on to the bothie, and there Mackay again made the lad swear to be true to him, and not to let any of the thieves come out alive. The Lochaber thieves were in the bothie quite unsuspicious, roasting a portion of the bull. Mackay posted his servant at the door, whilst he himself climbed on the other end of the bothie. He quietly lifted the lower edge of a divot on the roof, and peeped in to see what was going on. He saw Iain Geal Donn looking very jolly, and warming the backs of the calves of his legs at the fire. Iain suddenly turned round, and said to his men who were about the fire roasting the meat, " Look out! I am getting the smell of powder." Before he could say another word, the charge from Mackay's gun was lodged in the small of his back. The instant he had fired the shot, Mackay rushed to the door to assist his servant, and the two of them slew all the Lochaber men as they came to the door, except one who got off by a fluke, and he had the heel cut off one foot! They followed him a little way, but were too tired to catch him. They returned to the dead bodies at the bothie, and ate their fill of the meat that was roasting. They sewed up the body of Iain Geal Donn in the bull's hide, and put the roasting spit across his mouth. Then they went away, leaving the dead in the bothie. Alastair Buidhe Mackay returned west to Gairloch, and told the laird what he had done. Alastair Breac was so pleased with the account, that he sent a running gillie at once to Brahan with a letter to tell Lord Mackenzie of Kintail what had occurred. Who should happen to be dining with Lord Mackenzie but Cameron of Lochiel! When his lordship had read the letter, he threw it over to Lochiel, saying, " There is blood on you over there, you thieves." Lochiel was so stung that he left the dinner untouched, and went straight home to Lochaber. He sent gillies to Scardroy, and they brought away the body of Iain Geal Donn. They buried him in Corpach in Lochaber,. where his memorial cairn stands to this day. Soon after this, Lochiel meditated a raid on Gairloch; he thought he would make it hard for Alastair Breac, in revenge for the slaughter of the Lochaber men. When Alastair Breac heard of this, he collected four score men to keep back the Lochaber invaders. They were with the laird all night in the old house called the Temple, now the head-gardener's house at Flowerdale. They were a ragged crew, but they were strong and they were brave. In the morning they went away, and soon reached the Great Black Corrie of Liathgach. There were shieling bothies at the foot of the glen, and the Gairloch men thought their Lochaber foes might be lying in ambush in the bothies. Alastair Ross from Lonmor volunteered to go and see if the Locha'ber men were in the bothies, which were not in use at that time of the year; he was not much in his clothing, but he did not lack pluck. He went to the bothies, and in a loud voice challenged the Lochaber men to come out. But he got no answer. The Lochaber men, fortunately for themselves, had not'come forward, having heard of Alastair Breach preparations to resist them. The Gairloch men got the news of the retreat of the Lochaber men from the people of Coire Mhic Cromail in Torridon, who at the same time assured them they would have assisted them against the invader had they come. Our ragged rabble, without pride or fear, returned to Gairloch, and spent the night with Alastair Breac in the Temple house, with music, drinking, and revelry. It was on their tramp homewards that they met at Kenlochewe Ruaridh Breac, son of Fair Duncan, the old bard who lived at Cromasaig, and he composed the celebrated song to the "Guard of the Black Corrie."

The story of the wratch at Glac na Sguithar belongs to the same period. The dell bearing that name is to the east of the head of Glen Dochartie. Then almost all the proprietors in the Highlands paid blackmail to Colla Ban; consequently he made no raids upon their territories; and if others made raids upon them, Colla made good the loss. The laird of Gairloch refused to pay blackmail to Colla, and he sent him word that he had many brave men in Gairloch, therefore he would give blackmail to no one, Colla replied, "He would soon make a raid upon Gairloch, and before driving away the spoil he would sleep a night in the laird of Gairloch's bed." Upon hearing this Mackenzie called out the bravest and strongest of the Gairloch men, and he sent them to keep guard in the passes through which the Lochaber men were most likely to advance northward. There were thirty picked men in the Coire Dubh, and an equal member in Glac na Sguithar. In each guard Mackenzie had his own near relations and kinsmen. At this time there was an inn at Luib, at the Gairloch end of Loch Rosque; it was on the green at the head of the loch, below where the present Luibmhor inn stands ; the innkeeper was called Iain Caol. While the guard of Glac na Sguithar were on duty, late on a Saturday night, four of the Lochaber men, who had been sent on in advance to spy the land, took up their quarters in Iain Caol's hostelry. On Sabbath morning they sat round the fire in the one public room in the house, and Iain himself went out for a walk. He was not long away, but soon returned to the Cameron spies from Lochaber. Addressing them he said, " I see four of the Gairloch men from the watch at Glac na Sguithar coming this way. I am sure they will call in for their ' morning.' Go to the other end, where you slept last night, and remain there quietly for a little. They will soon be off again." This request displeased the Camerons, for they answered rather tartly, "Where did we ever see four from whose face we would turn away?" "Be that as it may," said Iain, "take my advice just now. You can see and hear all that may go on ; and, when you do so, if you think it prudent to go among them, you can join them before they leave the house." They took his advice and retired. The four came in, each of them a scion of the Gairloch family, except one who was a Chisholm. Big Murdo, son of the good man of Shieldaig, sat at the far end of the bench next the partition ; beside him Iain Gearr Mac Mhurchaidh Mhic Iain took up his position. The third was Murdo Roy ; and Chisholm occupied the 6ther end of the bench. Big Murdo of Shieldaig called for a bottle of whisky; they drank it. Iain Gearr called for another bottle, and they drank it. Murdo Roy called for a third bottle; they got it also, and drank it. Then Chisholm called for a bottle. "You have enough," said Iain Caol. "Is it because I am not one of the gentry that you refuse me?" said Chisholm, with rising ire: "Give me my bottle of your own good will, or I will have it against your will." They got the fourth bottle, and while they were discussing it Murdo of Shieldaig said to Iain Caol, "Do you ever see any of those braggarts from Lochaber who are troubling us, keeping us on guard away from home? I wish a few of them came, till we would have some sport with them." "Not a man of them ventures this way," said Iain Caol. The Gairloch men went away, and Iain accompanied them over the hill. Here they sat and drank Iain's bottle, which he had concealed under his arm. Then Iain returned, and found the Lochaber men sitting again at the fire. "Have I here the heroes who never saw men from whom they would retreat?" said Iain Caol to them. One of them replied, "We saw only two of them, but we never saw such men before. If one of them caught any of us, he could easily crush-every bone of the body in his hand." So the Lochaber spies quietly returned home. The Camerons never again attempted to make a raid upon Gairloch, and Alastair Breac heard no more of their menaces.

Alastair Breac died 4th January 1638, aged sixty, and was buried in the chapel he had erected in the Gairloch churchyard.

He was succeeded by his eldest son Kenneth, sixth laird of Gairloch, who was a strong royalist during the wars of Montrose and the Covenanters, and commanded a body of Highlanders at Balvenny, under Thomas Mackenzie of Pluscardine, and his own brother-in-law the Earl of Huntly, but when the royalist army was surprised and disarmed he managed to escape. As a malignant he was fined by the Committee of Estates for his adherence to the king (see Appendix F).

Kenneth added to the family property. He was three times married, and had eleven children. He built the Stankhouse, or "moat-house," on the site of the old Tigh Dige, and made his Gairloch home there. He died in 1669, and was buried in Beauly Priory, where his great-grandfather, John Glassich Mackenzie, had been interred.

Alexander, eldest son of Kenneth, became the seventh laird of Gairloch. He also added to the family estates. He was thrice married, and had six children. He seems to have lived a quiet life; he died in 1694, aged forty-two, and was buried in the burial-place in the Gairloch churchyard.


 


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