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Glimpses of Church and Social Life in the Highlands in Olden Times and Other Papers
Chapter II. The Old Churchyard of St Columba


“Sleep, brave ones and bards that have perished,
And green be your places of rest,
And light be the winds that go sighing
O’er the children whom Nature loved best.”

FOR a period of fully seventy years now there have been three churchyards in the village of Kingussie—namely, St Columba’s, The Middle Churchyard, and The New Churchyard,—the first interment in the new one having taken place in 1815. Except in the case of the last, there is no obligation incumbent upon the heritors of the parish to keep the churchyards in repair, and even as regards the new one the obligation extends simply to the maintenance of the walls surrounding it. As regards the other two, which are now but seldom used, the force of the old adage, What is everybody’s business is nobody’s, has, alas! as in the case of many other interesting old churchyards throughout the Highlands, been sadly exemplified. Up till within the last two or three years the venerable churchyard of St Columba—where for a period extending over fully seven hundred years so many generations of Macphersons, Clann Mhuirich Bhdideanaich, have been laid to rest with their kindred dust—was anything but creditably kept. Its surface was so irregular, and many of the tombstones and mounds were so placed or raised above the ground, as to render it almost impossible to cut the grass or remove the weeds. The whole ground was in consequence a tangled mass of long grass, rank nettles, and dockens. The walls had also been allowed to fall into a sad state of disrepair, and altogether the condition of the churchyard was felt to be so very discreditable that the following appeal was prepared and widely circulated :—

“Cladh Challum-Chille.—St Columba’s Churchyard, Kingussie.

“The stone wall or dyke enclosing this interesting and venerable place of burial having become dilapidated, it is proposed to collect by general subscription a sum of money sufficient to put it in good order and repair, and thereby guard the sacred precincts from possible desecration. An estimate has been received for the partial rebuilding and thorough repair of the dyke, and this expense, along with that of other contemplated permanent improvements which would add greatly to the appearance of the place and the amenity of the neighbourhood, will, it is calculated, cost altogether from ^40 to ^50. It is confidently anticipated that the sum required for so commendable an object will be readily subscribed in honour of the dead who lie buried there; in honour of the hallowed site of the old church of Kingussie—a place of worship of remote antiquity, one of the most ancient north of the Grampians, planted, it is believed, by St Columba himself, to whom the church was dedicated; and in honour of the ‘Parson’ of that church, from whom the Macphersons of the Macpherson country derive the name which they now bear. Subscriptions will be received and duly acknowledged by Mr A. Macpherson, British Linen Bank, Kingussie.”

The response to that appeal has been very gratifying. Besides subscriptions from residents in the place, ranging from is. to 21s., the list includes contributions from the proprietors and old natives and others interested in Badenoch all over the country. Not the least gratifying circumstance in connection with the appeal is the fact that, through the kind exertions of Miss Macpherson of The Willows, Kingston (whose grandfather—Captain Alexander Clark of Dalnavert, a nephew of the translator of Ossian’s poems—is interred in St Columba’s), subscriptions to the extent of several pounds have been received from Canada. The Canadian list of subscriptions includes such distinguished and well-known names as the late Sir John Macdonald, G.C.B., the Prime Minister of Canada (whose first wife was a daughter of Captain Clark and a cousin of his own); Sir David Macpherson, K.C.M.S.; Mr Hugh J. Macdonald, Winnipeg; Mr A. M. Macpherson, Kingston; Lieutenant-Colonel John Macpherson, Ottawa; Colonel J. Pennington Macpherson, Ottawa; and Mrs Macpherson of The Willows, Kingston.

The result of the response made to the appeal referred to is, that not only have the walls been partially rebuilt and thoroughly repaired, but that the churchyard itself has been all neatly laid out, and the tombstones and graves in each terrace all reverently placed on a uniform level. The work is now finished, and all who have recently seen the place acknowledge that a great improvement has been effected. Altogether it is very gratifying to be able to state that the old churchyard of St Columba has been rendered more worthy of the honoured name it bears, and of the care due to it as the hallowed resting-place for so many centuries of all that is mortal of the old people of Badenoch. There is not, it is safe to say, one living Macpherson of the Macpherson country, or descendant of the famous “Parson” of Kingussie, all the world over, some of whose forebears do not sleep their “long last sleep” in the old churchyard of St Columba.

In what remains of one of the side walls of the old church an appropriate tablet has been placed. The tablet is of red freestone, and is in the form of a Celtic cross, from a design by Messrs Davidson, sculptors, Inverness. The photograph reproduced at page 115 shows the inscription placed upon the tablet, the Gaelic portion being inscribed in old Gaelic lettering.

The granite piscina (or font ?) of the old church is described in the valuable communication from the late Mr John MacRae, Kirkwall, already quoted. That old and interesting relic was sacrilegiously removed from the churchyard about a quarter of a century ago, and was entirely lost sight of for many years. After some searching inquiries it was fortunately recently traced built as a copestone, with the cavity downwards, in the wall of a garden in one of the cross-streets of Kingussie. The sacred relic was at once reclaimed, and is now, as shown in the illustration, appropriately placed beneath the tablet, where, let me express the hope, it has found a final resting-place.

The oldest reference to St Columba’s churchyard, as distinguished from the church, which I have been able to trace, is in a Gaelic poem composed, it is believed, fully three hundred years ago, entitled “A’ Chomhachag.” This poem is attributed to Donald Macdonald, better known by the cognomen of Dbmhnull mac Fhionnllaidh nan Dan, a celebrated hunter and poet. He was a native of Lochaber, and flourished before the invention of firearms. According to tradition, he was the most expert archer of his day. At the time in which he lived wolves were very troublesome, especially in Lochaber; but Donald is said to have killed so many of them that previous to his death there was only one left alive in Scotland, which was shortly after killed in Strathglass by a woman.

He composed these verses when old and unable to follow the chase, and it is the only one of his compositions which has been handed down to us.

The occasion of the poem was this: he had married a young woman in his old age, who, as might have been expected, proved a very unmeet helpmate. When he and his dog were both worn down with the toils of the chase, and decrepit with age, his “crooked rib” seemed to take a pleasure in tormenting them. Fear rather than respect might possibly protect Donald himself, but she neither feared nor respected the dog. On the contrary, she took every opportunity of beating and maltreating him. In fact, “like the goodman’s mother,” he “was aye in the way.” Their ingenious tormentor one day found an old feeble owl, which she seems to have thought would make a fit companion for the old man and his dog, and accordingly brought it home. The poem is in the form of a dialogue between Donald and the owl. It is very unlikely that he ever heard of zFsop, yet he contrives to make an owl speak, and that to good purpose. On the whole, it is an ingenious performance, and perhaps has no rival of its kind in the language. Allusion is made to his “ half marrow ” in the 57th stanza.

This poem, which extends to sixty-seven stanzas, begins:—

“A’ Chomhachag bhochd na Sroine,
A nochd is bronach do leabaidh.
Ma bha thu arm ri linn Donnaghaill,
Cha’n ioghmadh ge trom leat t-aigneadh.”

(Poor Owl of Strone, sorrowful to-night is thy bed. If thou didst exist in the time of Donnaghall, no wonder if thy heart be heavy.)

Of Alexander or Alasdair Macdonald (a son of “Raonull Mor,” who fought with John Moydartach against Lord Lovat and Ranald Gallda at Blarleine in 1544) tradition has it, “ that while hunting in the woods of Lag-a-Leamhan, Achadh-a’mhadaidh, he was accidentally wounded between the toes by an arrow; that the wound festered; and that he was sent to a medical man at Kingussie, where he was poisoned. This would be before his father’s death, as he was unable to lead the Lochaber men against the Camerons at the feud of Boloyne. His father was confined to bed at the time, and his brother Ian Dubh had to take his place. This is borne out by the author of ‘ A’ Chomhachag,’ with whom he seems to have been a great favourite, and who says of him ” :—

“’Sann an Cinn-a’-ghiuthsaich’ na laidhe,
Tha nkmhaid na graidhe deirge,
Lkmh dheas a mharbhadh a bhradain;
Bu mhath e’n sabaid na feirge.”

(In Kingussie there lies the foe of the red herd (deer); a hand skilful to kill the salmon; powerful was he in the raging conflict.)

It is related that in his declining years Donald, the hunter-bard, when he could no longer “take the hill,” and his former house in the Fearsaid became too distant from the best scenes of his sport, sought another habitation nearer Loch Treig. There is a little “lochan” at the east end of that lake—an enlargement of the water, which has there an outlet—and in it a small island, on which in Donald’s time there was a “tigh-chrann,” or block-house, which originally had been built as a place of strength and retreat, but was then used by the gentlemen of Lochaber when they went to hunt at Loch Treig. Opposite this small island, Donald, with his daughter and his last greyhound, lived in a turf “ bothan,” or hut, and unable any longer to participate in the chase, in those days when he lamented to his old companion,—

“Thug a’choille dhiots’ an earbI“ The wood took from thee the roe,
’S thug an aird dhiomsa na feidh.” The hill took from me the deer.”

—he solaced himself with the occasional sight of the deer by day, and the tales of the hunters when they returned at evening to the island, where his songs, traditions, and celebrated adventures made him a venerated guest. At length he became confined entirely to his bothy, and in the intervals, when the island-lodge was uninhabited, his only enjoyment was to sit at the window, which looked to the west, and watch the sun go down over his old haunts, and sometimes the deer which came to feed on the green shealings by the lake. One still autumnal evening, as he sat in the gloaming, and watched the parting beams of the sun steal upwards on the mountain, some straggling hinds had descended upon the meadow, and presently a large dark shadow passed across a little hollow which was now left in the shade of the hills. The old hunter’s eye instantly turned upon the moving object. It glided through the rushes, crossed the yellow light upon the stream, and came out broad, and tall, and black upon the bank—a mighty stag, carrying on his head a tree of clustering points. His daughter heard his breath come strongly, and she arose. “Socair!” (“Gently!”), said the old man, “Thoir dhomh am bogha!” (“Give me the bow!”). Mary looked at him with astonishment, but the old man pointed to the couples, and she lifted down the dusty yew. He motioned her to approach softly, and while his eyes were fixed upon the stag, “Cuir air lagh e” (“Bend it”), said he, without turning his sight. She smiled. “There is not the man in Lochaber can do that!” she replied. “Feuch, mo Nighean!” (“Try, my daughter!”), said the old man; and he placed the bow at the back of his leg, and directed his daughter how to apply her weight and effort; but the wood scarcely yielded. Donald had always been celebrated for the great strength of his arms, and in an extraordinary degree he retained this power to the end of his life. “Once more!” he said, and with their combined force the cord suddenly slipped over the horn. “C’dit a’ bheil na saighde.au?” (“Where are the arrows?”), he whispered. His daughter laid the quiver on his lap; he chose out one, felt its point, smoothed the feathers through his fingers, and fitted the shaft to the string. Then drawing back from the window, he raised the bow, drew the arrow almost to its head. There was a sharp twang, a flutter like a bat’s wing, a breathless pause, and the hart leaped upon the bank and rolled over on the grass. Donald sank back in his chair with a smile, and his daughter fell upon his neck, and wept with astonishment and joy. “So, Mhaari” (“Here, Mary”), he said, as he gave her the bow, “it is the last shot, beannuich Dial (praise God!). I did not think to have done the like again.” In his failing days Donald was brought down among the people in the inhabited strath of the Spean, and died at Inverlair at a very old age. At his own desire, however, he was buried wrapped in a deer’s hide, upon the brow of Cille-Corell, from whence he had been used to look over the hills of the Fearsaid, and his favourite haunts of Loch Treig. There, according to the wish expressed in the lay of the old bard, “the deer have couched on his bed,” and “the little kids have rested by his side;” and the “primrose and the wild St John’s wort” have grown “over his breas ” for three hundred years.

In St Columba’s Churchyard, although no trace can now be found of the actual grave, there also rests, it is believed, the dust of the celebrated Forsair Choir-an-t-sith (the Forester of the Fairy Corry), a native of Cowal in Argyleshire. This hero was of a branch of the MacLeods (Mhic-ille-Chaluim) of Raasay, and being fair-haired, his descendants were called Clann Mhic-ille bhain—that is, the children of the fair- (literally white) haired man, who now call themselves by the surname of Whyte. The forester was universally believed to have had a Leannan-Sith (a fairy sweetheart or familiar spirit), who followed him wherever he went.

Mr Duncan Whyte of Glasgow, one of the eighth generation in direct descent from the forester, has communicated to me in Gaelic sundry very interesting traditions which have come down regarding his famous ancestor. The particulars thus communicated by Mr Whyte are too lengthy to be quoted here entire, but I give the portions referring to the death and burial of the forester, and the sad fate of his fairy sweetheart, as translated by the Rev. Mr Dewar, the scholarly and much respected minister of the Free Church, Kingussie:—

“In the year 1644 the Earl of Montrose was in the field with an army on behalf of King Charles I.; and the Earl of Argyle had the chief command of the Covenanters’ army. Montrose was burning and pillaging in the north when the Earl of Argyle received instructions to go in pursuit of him. He went with his army to the town of Aberdeen. Montrose proceeded northward through the counties of Banff and Moray, and up Strathspey. The forester was in Argyle’s army, and the fairy sweetheart, in the shape of a white hind, was always following the army wherever they went. While they were resting in the neighbourhood of Ruthven Castle some of the officers began to mock Argyle for allowing the hind to be always following the army. Their ridicule roused his wrath, and he commanded the army to fire at the hind. This was done without a particle of lead piercing her hair. Some observed that the forester was not firing, although pointing his gun at the hind like the rest of the army; and he was accused to Argyle. He then received strict orders to fire alone at the hind. ‘I will fire at your command, Argyle,’ said the forester, ‘but it will be the last shot that I shall ever fire;’ and it happened as he said. Scarcely was the charge out of the gun when he fell dead on the field. The fairy gave a terrific scream. She rose like a cloud of mist up the shoulder of the neighbouring mountain, and from that time was never seen following the army. It has been believed by every generation since that time that the fairy left a charm with the descendants of the forester, which shall stick to them to the twentieth generation.”

According to the Coronach, or Lament, composed by his widow, whom he had left behind in the Fairy Corry, the forester was laid in the dust of the churchyard of Kingussie :—

“Gur e sud mo sgeul deacair,
Gu’n do thaisg iad’s Taobh Tuath thu;
’S ann an Cladh Chinn-a’-ghiuthsaich
A ruisg iad an uaigh dhuit.
’S truagh nach robh fir do dhuthcha
’Ga do ghiulan air ghuaillean,
5S nach robh I bean d’ fhkrdaich
S a’ ghhirich man cuairt duit.”

(That was my sorrowful tale that they laid (buried) thee up in the north. In the churchyard of Kingussie they uncovered the grave for thee. Pity that the men of thy own country did not bear thee on their shoulders, and that the wife of thy home was not there to join in the lamentation around thee.)

While there is every reason to believe that the great majority of those who have for so many centuries been laid to rest in St Columba’s Churchyard were descendants of the famous Parson of Kingussie, of many of the graves (as of many graves in other churchyards throughout the Highlands) it may be appropriately said :—

"No name to bid us know
Who rests below,
No word of death or birth;
Only the grass’s wave
Over a mound of earth
Over a nameless grave.

No matter—trees have made
As cool a shade,
And lingering breezes pass
As tenderly and slow,
As if beneath the grass
A monarch slept below.

No grief though loud and deep
Could stir that sleep;
And Earth and Heaven tell
Of rest that shall not cease
Where the cold World’s farewell
Fades into endless peace.”


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