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Glimpses of Church and Social Life in the Highlands in Olden Times and Other Papers
Chapter II. The Old Cave of Raitts, In Badenoch


THE distinguished philosopher, Sir David Brewster (the son-in-law of the translator of Ossian’s poems), while resident at Belleville in 1835, made a careful exploration of this remarkable cave, and in a communication to the Society of Antiquaries in 1863 (when he was Principal of the University of Edinburgh) he thus describes it:—

“This cave is situated on the brow of a rising ground in the village of Raitts, on the estate of Belleville. It is about two miles from Kingussie, and about half a mile to the north of the great road from Perth to Inverness. In 1835, when it was first pointed out to me, it was filled with stones and rubbish taken from the neighbouring grounds. Upon removing the rubbish I was surprised to find a long subterraneous building, with its sides faced with stones, and roofed in by gradually contracting the side walls and joining them with very large flattish stones. The form of the cave was that of a horse-shoe. Its convex side was turned to the south, and the entrance to it was at the middle of this side by means of two stone steps, and a passage of some length. The part of the cave to the left hand was a separate apartment with a door. A lock of an unusual form, almost destroyed by rust, was found among the rubbish. The formation of the roof by the gradual contraction of the side walls is shown in the drawing. There is no tradition among the people respecting the history of this cave, and, so far as I know, it had not been previously noticed.”

In stating that there was no tradition among the people at the time regarding the cave, Sir David must have been misinformed. “Old Biallid’s” account of it appears to have been written prior to 1835, and in a quaint diary in my possession, which belonged to the Rev. William Blair, who was minister of Kingussie from 1724 to 1786, there is the following reference to the cave in a description of a journey from Edinburgh to Inverness:—

“We visited the Cave of Clan Ichilnew, which is not far from the side of the highroad. We descended into it, and found the greater part of it fallen in, and could only perceive a dark hole through which we could not see the farther end. The stones that support the roof are of an enormous size—in length about twelve feet. The accounts given of this subterranean mansion are various. The people there give this account: That in primitive ages, when anarchy prevailed throughout the island, the country was infested with men of a gigantic stature who had often made fruitless attempts to conquer the island. Being repulsed at a time when they made their last and most formidable attack, such as were not either killed in the flight or escaped by sea fled into the mountains, and being closely pursued by the enemy until night stopt the pursuit, they advanced so far as the Spay, and in a night’s time finished the said cave, and lived there for some time, till, by the continual searches of the conquerors, they were at last discovered and every man killed.”

Here is “Old Biallid’s” account of the cave, under the title of “The Macnivens’ Cave”:—

“This artificial cave is on the farm of Raitts in Badenoch, and is still nearly entire. Its history is as follows: When the Clan Chattan lost their patrimony in Lochaber by the marriage of the heiress of the clan to the son of the Thane of Fife, the Macphersons, who opposed the pretensions of the husband to the chieftainship, were gradually expelled their possessions, and found an asylum in Badenoch, then occupied by the Macnivens, as vassals of Comyn Earl of Badenoch. The emigration from Lochaber continued for several years, but it was not until the restoration of Robert Bruce and the downfall of the Comyns that the Chief of the Macphersons made a purchase of the lands of Cluny, &c., and came to reside there. In consequence of that event the Macnivens became alarmed, and took every opportunity of insulting Cluny, who was not then sufficiently strong to resent or punish their conduct. An occurrence, however, happened which brought matters to a crisis. The Chief of the Macnivens, who resided at Breakachy, and was Cluny’s next neighbour, poinded Cluny’s cattle, and as there was much bad blood between the parties, it was considered dangerous that the men should come in contact. It was therefore resolved to send Cluny’s daughter to relieve the cattle; but instead of paying that deference due to the rank and sex of the young lady, she was treated in the most brutal manner: her petticoats were cut off, and in that state she was sent home to her family. The cattle were also sent home, but the bull’s tongue was cut out, which in these times was considered as a direct challenge. Such a gross outrage could not but inflame the Macphersons to the highest pitch, and as they were not equal to their adversaries in point of numbers, one called Allaster Caint collected a band of one hundred resolute men, with whom he set out at night, and before the sun rose next morning there was not a living male Macniven in the lordship of Badenoch except eighteen that contrived to conceal themselves in the woods of Raitts. These men managed to elude the vengeance of Allaster Caint until they constructed a cave under the floor of their dwelling-house, and which they did with such skill and secrecy that they were enabled to keep possession of the place for several years. They slept securely in the cave at night, and in the daytime they kept so good a look-out that their enemies could never get them into their power until the cave was discovered by the following stratagem: Allaster Caint concealed himself under pretence of sickness until his beard grew to a great length. He then disguised himself in the habit of a beggar, and came in that character to the house of the Macnivens late of an evening, when he was kindly treated by the women, but refused lodgings for the night. He begged hard to be allowed to remain, and when they attempted to remove him by force, he pretended to be afflicted with gravel, and uttered such piercing shrieks that they had pity on him, and allowed him to lie at the fireside, where, after a great deal of mock moaning, he pretended to fall sound asleep, and by this artifice discovered the cave; for, believing him to be really asleep, the door was opened to give the men their supper. He left the house early in the morning, and in a few days thereafter he returned with a strong party, and beheaded every one of the unfortunate Macnivens upon the stump of a tree before the door. The most singular circumstance connected with this tragic affair is, that every one of the descendants of Allaster Caint to this very day has been afflicted with gravel.”

The cave was well known to the old natives of Badenoch under the name of An Uaimh Mhoir—i.e., the Great Cave. It is now generally known in the district as The Robbers' Cave, but it is evidently of a much older date than common tradition assigns to it. I am indebted to Mr David MacGibbon, architect, Edinburgh, one of the accomplished authors of ‘The Castellated Architecture of Scotland,’ for the following particulars and for the plan of the cave given at page 407.

It is curved as shown on the plan. The side walls are built with large stones, those towards the top being pushed inwards so as to diminish the space, and the top covered in with a long stone, as shown in section. The entrance is very narrow, and has apparently sloped down from the surface to the doorway, which is composed of massive stones, the jambs of which incline inwards towards the top. This doorway has been defended either by a stone or wooden door strengthened by a strong sliding-bar on the inside, the holes or slots for which are still visible. The portion of the roof next the entrance has fallen in, but the greater part of the stone roof still exists.

A cave or earth-house most closely resembling the one at Raitts was found in 1869 at Crichton Mains, in Mid-Lothian, as described by Lord Rosehill in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, vol. viii. p. 105, of which sketches are given by Dr Joseph Anderson in his learned and able work on ‘Scotland in Pagan Times.’

“Whatever,” says Dr Anderson, “ may have been the actual purpose or purposes to which they were applied, the fact which is of importance in our investigation is that these earth-houses, though ranging in area from Berwickshire to the north coast of Sutherland, are all of one special character, long, low, narrow galleries, always possessing a certain amount of curvature, sometimes greatly and at other times doubly curved, always widening and increasing in height from the low and narrow entrance inwards, usually built with convergent walls and roofed with heavy lintels, which are always lower than the surrounding level of the ground, so that the whole structure is subterranean. Occasionally they present variations in structure, as in the case of one at Murroes in Forfarshire, which, instead of being built, has its walls constructed entirely of flagstones set on edge. Similarly, the example at Kinord, in Aberdeenshire, has its walls constructed of single boulders set on edge or on end; and it presents the further peculiarity of the chamber being divided into two branches at the farther end. One at Pirnie, in the parish of Wemyss, in Fife, and another at Elie, had steps leading down to the entrance.

“Like the Scottish examples, the earth-houses of Cornwall are long narrow galleries of dry-built masonry, but they are not so strongly marked by the peculiar feature of single or double curvature which distinguishes the Scottish group. They are comparatively few in number, and any indications of the period of their occupation that have been observed point also to a time not far distant from the close of the Roman occupation of the country. No other group of such underground structures is known in any other part of Europe, or indeed anywhere else in the world. These excavated chambers, possessing the characteristics which have been described, are peculiar to the Celtic area, and the specially typical form with the strongly marked curvature is found only in Scotland.

“Of the culture and civilisation of the people who constructed these strange subterranean cells it may be impossible, in the present condition of our knowledge, to form an adequate estimate; but we can say this of them with certainty, that whatever may have been the special motives and circumstances that induced them to give this peculiar expression to their architectural efforts, they exhibit in other respects evidences of culture which, though it may be held to be inferior in range and quality to the culture of the Christian time, compares not unfavourably (so far as it goes) with that which is exhibited in connection with the superior architecture of the brochs.

“And while on all these lines of investigation we have traced the manifestations of these early forms of culture and civilisation up to points at which they seem to touch the culture and civilisation of the Roman empire, it is to be observed that they do no more than touch it—they are not merged in it. In all their distinctive features they are still Celtic, and Celtic exclusively. There is nothing Roman in the forms of the prevailing types; there is nothing Roman in the art that decorates these forms; there is nothing Roman in the typical character of the structures in which they are found. The forms, the art, and the architecture are those of Scotland’s iron age—the Pagan period of the Celtic people.”

III.—THE BATTLE OF THE NORTH INCH OF PERTH.

According to Shaw, the historian of Moray, a quarrel regarding precedency between the Macphersons and Davidsons in connection with the battle of Invernahaven in 1386 gave rise to such strife and fatal discord as ultimately led to the memorable conflict of the North Inch of Perth ten years later. Here is “ Old Biallid’s ” account of that conflict—

“There are a great many versions of this battle in circulation, but none of them strictly correct. It was fought in the reign of Robert III., and the belligerents were the Macphersons and the Davidsons. George Buchanan says that it was fought between the Clan Chattan and the Mackays, and he has been copied by almost every individual that wrote on the subject; but this is evidently an error, for the Clan Chattan and the Mackays were at such a distance from each other that it was almost impossible they could come in contact. The substituting the Clan Chattan for the Macphersons can hardly be called a mistake, for it is well known that the Macphersons are the senior branch of that clan ; but the error with regard to the Mackays was owing to the similarity of that name to Davidson in the Gaelic language (Mackays — Clanichcaic, Davidsons (Clandai), and the grounds of the quarrel were as follows:

On the marriage of the heiress of Clan Chattan, although the husband succeeded to the whole of her property, yet the bulk of the clan refused to acknowledge him as chief. He therefore commenced upon a new foundation, and took the name of Mackintoashich (which signifies a beginner), a very applicable name for one in his situation; and the modern definition attempted to be given to it, as signifying first or foremost, is quite absurd, and will be scouted by every unprejudiced person possessing a competent knowledge of the Gaelic language. The ancestor of the laird of Cluny (although admitted to be the senior branch in the male line) also changed his name to Macmurdoch, and afterwards to Macpherson, and both names are given to the clan indiscriminately to this day. A third party took the name of Macgillivray from their ancestor, and a fourth that of Davidson, as descendants of David dubh, who was brother to Macgillivray, and both of them were the younger brothers of the ancestor of Cluny Macpherson. Thus the Clan Chattan was all at once split into at least four clans, and under circumstances, as may be supposed, that left very little cordiality among them. Such as did not adopt the name of Macintosh were ejected from possessions, and the Macphersons and Davidsons took possession of Badenoch on the ruin of the Comyns. Macintosh having admitted Camerons in their place, soon learned that he had to deal with refractory tenants, and it was not long before his authority was set at defiance. He was therefore obliged to have recourse to arms for the recovery of his rents; but his own followers were quite inadequate to the task, and he was compelled to implore the assistance of the very clans his ancestors had expelled from their ancient patrimony. Nor did he implore in vain; for although they regretted that the clan estates should devolve on a stranger, and felt indignant at their own expulsion, yet they considered (the then) Macintosh in some degree as their relation, and could not stand by and see him trampled upon by a clan with whom they had no connection whatever. The Macphersons and Davidsons agreed to join him in his expedition to Lochaber; but Lochiel had intimation of their plans, and resolved to anticipate them by assembling his clan and marching straight to Badenoch. By this movement he would preserve his own country from the ravages of war, and it is very probable that he had also in view to attack the enemy in detail, and to overpower the Macphersons before they could be joined by Macintosh. In this, however, he was disappointed ; for Macintosh was in Badenoch before him, and awaiting his arrival at Invernahaun, the place of Davidson the chief of that branch of the Clan Chattan. When the Camerons made their appearance and the order of battle was about to be formed, Cluny, as a matter of course, claimed the post of honour, and was very much surprised to find his claim disputed by Davidson, and still more so when Macintosh pronounced in Davidson’s favour, and added, that as the battle was to be fought on his (Macintosh’s) account, none but Davidson should take the right. Upon this Cluny indignantly marched off his men, and crossing the river Spey below Craig Dhu, they halted and stood on a small hill at the river-side as unconcerned spectators. The battle was short but bloody. Macintosh was beaten with great slaughter. Davidson and his seven sons were killed, and those that fled were only saved by crossing the Spey directly where the Macphersons stood, and the Camerons did not consider it prudent to follow them. After this the contention between the Davidsons, supported by Macintosh and the Macphersons (with regard to precedency), was carried on with such rancour and so much bloodshed as to attract the notice of Government, and accordingly commissioners were sent to endeavour to effect a conciliation. These commissioners, finding that both parties were obstinate and bent on carrying their point at whatever sacrifice, proposed that the dispute should be settled by thirty men on each side—the fight to take place on the North Inch of Perth, before umpires chosen by his majesty, and the combatants to use no other weapon but broadswords. This proposition was eagerly accepted by both parties, and the men destined to be sacrificed appeared on the North Inch on the appointed day. The result of the battle is well known. The Davidsons were all killed except one, who fled and swam across the river Tay, and the Macphersons had nineteen killed. Tradition ascribes the decided superiority of the Macphersons to the extraordinary valour of the Gobhainn-crom (or stooping Blacksmith), whom they engaged as a substitute for one of their own men who fell sick, and which was rendered necessary as the Davidsons refused to withdraw one of theirs.”

IV.—THE BATTLE OF GLENFRUIN.

In an account of this battle, which was fought in 1603, it is stated that early in that year Allaster Macgregor of Glenstra, followed by 400 men, chiefly of his own clan, but including also some of the Clans Cameron and Anverich (?), armed with “halberschois, pow-aixes, twa-handit swordis, bowis and arrowis, and with hagbutis and pistoletis,” advanced into the territory of Luss. Alexander Colquhoun, under his royal commission, granted the year before, had raised a force which some writers state to have amounted to 300 horse and 500 foot. In Sir William Fraser’s interesting work, ‘ The Chiefs of Colquhoun and their Country,’ published in Edinburgh in 1869, the following description of the battle is given :—

“On 7th February the Macgregors were in Glenfruin in two divisions, one of them at the head of the glen, and the other in ambuscade near the farm of Strone, at a hollow or ravine called the Crate. The Colquhouns came into Glenfruin from the Luss side, which is opposite Strone—probably by Glen Luss and Glen Mackurn. Alexander Colquhoun pushed on his forces in order to get through the glen before encountering the Macgregors; but, aware of his approach, Allaster Macgregor also pushed forward one division of his forces, and entered at the head of the glen in time to prevent his enemy from emerging from the upper end of the glen, whilst his brother, John Macgregor, with the division of his clan, which lay in ambuscade, by a detour took the rear of the Colquhouns, which prevented their retreat down the glen without fighting their way through that section of the Macgregors who had got in their rear. The success of the stratagem by which the Colquhouns were thus placed between two fires seems to be the only way of accounting for the terrible slaughter of the Colquhouns and the much less loss of the Macgregors. The Colquhouns soon became unable to maintain their ground, and falling into a moss at the farm of Auchingaich, they were thrown into disorder and made a hasty and disorderly retreat, which proved even more disastrous than the conflict, for they had to force their way through the men led by John Macgregor, whilst they were pressed behind by Allaster, who, reuniting the two divisions of his army, continued the pursuit. All who fell into the victor’s hands were instantly slain; and the chief of the Colquhouns barely escaped with his life after his horse had been killed under him. Of the Colquhouns 140 were slain, and many more wounded, among them a number of women and children.”

Here is “Old Biallid’s” account of the battle, written, it is believed, about fifty years ago:—

“It is rather singular that so little should be known of the particulars of the battle of Glenfruin, and the causes that led to it, when it is considered that it is comparatively of a late date, having been fought between the Clan Gregor and the Colquhouns in the reign of James VI.

No correct account has, however, been published, from which it may be inferred that the true history is lost among the Macgregors, for every version of the affair is more unfavourable for them than the facts would have been. One account says that it was an accidental rencontre, and another that the Macgregors were treacherously waylaid by the Col-quhouns. These statements are both unfounded. The battle was deliberately resolved upon, for it was fought in the heart of the Colquhoun country, which of itself is a proof that it was not an accidental rencontre ; but what places the matter beyond a doubt is, that Macgregor applied for and obtained assistance from the Clan Macpherson (with whom he had a treaty of alliance offensive and defensive) for the very purpose of invading the Colquhouns. There were fifty picked men sent from Badenoch to assist the Clan Gregor; but the action was over a few hours before their arrival, which perhaps was rather a fortunate circumstance, for had they taken part in the battle, it is more than probable that they would also share in the proscription. Another account states that the massacre of the boys was unintentional—that a house in which they took shelter was accidentally set on fire. That the massacre of the boys was unintentional on the part of the Macgregors is very true; but still it was the deliberate act of one individual, and no doubt the Clan Gregor were in a certain degree responsible for the conduct of that individual, for although he was not of their name, yet he was under their banner at the time. He was a man, or rather a monster, of the name of Cameron, and foster-brother to Macgregor, who was sent to take charge of the boys in order to keep them out of harm’s way; and strange and unnatural as it may appear, he massacred the whole of them to the number of forty, some say sixty.

“The origin of the quarrel with the Colquhouns was as follows: A party of twelve Macgregors entered the Colquhoun country in quest of stolen or strayed cattle, and in a dreadful stormy night came to a sequestered farmhouse, the landlord of which refused them admittance, although it was quite evident that they must perish in the event of attempting to reach any other inhabited place. They, however, acted with extraordinary temper and forbearance; for in place of using force (which under the circumstances would be quite justifiable), they merely took possession of an outhouse, where they lighted a fire, and having in vain applied for provisions, for which they offered payment, they had no alternative but to take a sheep from the churl’s flock, which they killed, and handed its value in at a window. Having thus provided themselves with food, they were sitting round a large fire and broiling the mutton, when the savage landlord stole quietly to the top of the house and dropped a large stone into the fire through the vent-hole, which burned several of the Macgregors severely. One of them, smarting with pain, made a spring to the door, and when the landlord was in the act of descending from the house he shot him dead. After this accident (for it cannot be called by any other name) the Macgregors returned home, but the Colquhouns having seized several of that clan (who were on their own lawful business and knew nothing of the other affair), they hanged them like so many dogs. So gross an outrage could not be overlooked, but still the Macgregors acted with the greatest coolness, and sent a regular embassy to demand satisfaction; but every proposition was rejected by the Colquhouns, and after much negotiation Macgregor intimated to Colquhoun of Luss that he must hold him and his whole clan responsible for the slaughter of the Macgregors, and he accordingly prepared to put his threat in execution. The Clan Gregor entered the Colquhoun country with fire and sword, and when they came to Glen-fruin, and in sight of the enemy, they fell in with a number of boys who came out from Dumbarton to see the fight. They were principally schoolboys, and many of them of good families that probably had no connection whatever with either of the belligerents. Macgregor, in order to keep them out of harm’s way, directed that the boys should be confined in a church or meeting-house that happened to be close by, and sent his foster-brother (one of the name of Cameron) to take charge of them, who, from what motive it is impossible to divine, massacred the whole of them as soon as he found the armies engaged. The battle of Glenfruin was soon over. The Colquhouns were defeated with great slaughter. Their chief was killed, and the Macgregors scarcely lost a man. When they returned from the pursuit Macgregor’s first inquiry was for the boys, whom he intended to liberate and dismiss with kindness; but learning the horrid fact that they were all butchered, he struck his forehead and exclaimed, ‘ The battle is lost after all.’ The fate of the Dumbarton scholars was so very revolting to the feelings of every person possessing any share of humanity, that it is no wonder that it created a deep and powerful prejudice against the Clan Gregor; and yet they were, at least, morally innocent, and it must for ever be a matter of regret that such heavy calamities should be heaped upon the bravest clan in the Highlands for the act of one madman.

“The Clan Gregor, however, were doomed to be unfortunate, as will appear by continuing their history a little further. Gregor Our, or Gregor the Swarthy, was the second in rank to the chief, but in deeds of arms he had no superior nor perhaps an equal in all the Highlands. Argyle was his maternal uncle, and his valour in defence of his clan and country, when outlawed and assailed by multitudes of foes, would appear more like romance than real facts. After various desperate actions, in which the Clan Gregor displayed incredible prowess, but which considerably reduced their number, they learned with amazement that Argyle, at the head of an overwhelming force, was advancing to attack them. Upon the receipt of this intelligence Gregor Our proposed to stop his uncle’s progress, and having communicated his plan to his chief, he set out alone and in disguise. After several narrow escapes he succeeded in making his way into Argyle’s tent at midnight (by telling the sentry that he was the bearer of despatches from Government, the delivery of which admitted of no delay), and after upbraiding him for his cruelty and injustice, told him plainly that his life was forfeited unless he instantly agreed to relinquish the expedition. Argyle knew the determined character of his nephew, and it is also possible that he might be influenced by affection towards a relative of whom he might very justly be proud; but be his motives what they may, he at once agreed to the proposed terms, and conducted Gregor safely out of the camp, and soon after disbanded his troops. Nor did his good offices cease there, for he became an advocate of the Clan Gregor at Court, and obtained an armistice for them as well as a protection to Gregor Our, with instructions to him to appear before the Privy Council to explain every circumstance relating to the battle of Glenfruin and the massacre of the scholars. Gregor Our accordingly set out for Edinburgh with the concurrence of his chief, but he was no sooner gone than suspicions began to arise as to the purity of his intentions. Dark hints were first thrown out, and afterwards stated boldly as a fact, that Gregor, through the interest of his uncle and his own address, had obtained a royal grant of the chieftainship, as well as of the estates of Macgregor for himself. By these insinuations and reports (which no doubt had great plausibility in them) Macgregor was driven to a state of absolute distraction, and having learned that Gregor Our was on his way back from Edinburgh, he went to meet him, and without the least inquiry or explanation, shot him through the heart with a pistol. On examining his papers it was discovered that there was not a vestige of truth in these reports. The pardon to the Clan Gregor was addressed to Macgregor. His estates were restored to himself, and Gregor Our did not secure a single benefit to himself but what he got in common with every individual of the clan. This discovery drove Macgregor to madness, and he actually became deranged. The pardon was recalled, and the proscription was enforced with greater rigour than before, nor is it at all surprising that Argyle should become their bitter (as he was their most powerful) enemy.”


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