AFTER the risings of 1715 and 1745,
numerous individuals, and even bands of Highlanders, lived in undisguised
hostility to the constituted authorities of the realm; being either
legally proscribed on charge of rebellion, or having voluntarily
disclaimed allegiance to the House of Hanover. These lived in the
‘troublous times’; but that any one in the present day should be able to
maintain himself in safety when outlawed, is somewhat surprising.
There is considerable interest in
the life of the Highlander, here the subject of illustration, who has
lived so long at the ban of the law, and has grown grey in a state of
It is about forty years since Ewen
Mac Phee, then a fine athletic young man, was enlisted by his landlord in
one of the Highland regiments embodied at that time. The profession was
well suited to Ewen’s disposition, and he was noted as a sprightly and
able soldier; but having very improperly been led to expect a commission,
he became greatly discontented; and when, after serving some time, he
found no prospect of the realization of his hopes, he formed the
resolution to desert.
He did not attempt this object in
the usual clandestine manner, but quite deliberately left parade, and
marched home to the Highlands. He was, of course, quickly pursued, and was
speedily captured, handcuffed, and marched off under a file of soldiers.
In passing through Stratheric, the prisoner, watching a favourable
opportunity, bounded from his guard, and plunging down a precipitous bank
escaped the musquets of the party, and was quickly lost in the thicket. He
continued his flight until he reached a lonely cottage, where, with the
assistance of the shepherd, the handcuffs were knocked off by a stone, and
the deserter was again free in his mountain wilds. He proceeded to
Coiriebuie, a secluded retreat on the estate of Locheil, where he lived
unmolested for many years, supporting himself by hunting, fishing, and
rearing a few goats, and occasionally assisted in floating wood.
He was well known by his countrymen,
but met with no molestation, for although he avoided giving any offence,
his determination to die rather than be retaken, and his being constantly
armed, served to overawe any who might intend to arrest him; and it was
matter of prudence not to arouse his sense of danger. On one occasion he
was pointed out to a person anxious to see a character so noted, by the
incautious observation, "there he is," on which Ewen drew his dirk, and in
the confusion which arose, Mac Kenzie, the stranger, was wounded.
Being at last hotly pursued, he was
obliged to leave Locheil, and he took possession of an island in
Glenquoich, one of the chain of lakes in the line of the Caledonian canal.
It is of small dimensions, scarcely a half acre in extent; but the
situation is highly romantic and solitary, the few birch trees which it
produces contrasting agreeably with the dark mountains on either side,
which are streaked with snow almost throughout the summer.
He had, when in Locheil’s country,
won the affection of a girl of fourteen, who is now his faithful wife, and
mother of five children. In this islet they constructed a hut with
branches of trees and turf, and he found, or formed, a boat, to enable him
to get to the mainland, where he pastured some goats. These supplied him
with milk and flesh, and his rod and gun procured him other food.
Ewen is held in fear by the
neighbouring tenants, from his daring character and supposed supernatural
powers, which he believes himself to possess, and hence offerings of meal
and money are not unfrequently conveyed to the island. This residence,
however, must in winter be exceedingly cheerless; and the situation of his
family, bred up in lawless wildness, is a painful consequence of Ewen’s
singular position; although it is believed the mother, who is still
comparatively young and active, may impart a certain amount of instruction
and Christian duty.
Ewen is represented as much attached
to his family, and a melancholy evidence of this lately occurred on
occasion of the death of one of his sons. He had no wood wherewith to form
a coffin, and if he had possessed the materials, he was so overwhelmed
with grief, that he could not, as he said, "steady his hand for the work."
He therefore left the desolate isle in his boat, and sought the assistance
of a shepherd, who, procuring some herring barrel staves, was able to form
a rude receptacle for the body, which was interred in a romantic
burying-ground used by the people of the glen, and situated in another
island in the lake.
Ewen, although well stricken in
years, is still strong and healthy, and his muscular frame gives promise
of a protracted age. The dangers to which his irregular mode of life
exposes him, require his utmost vigilance, and frequently his greatest
physical exertion. To prevent surprise, he has always a loaded gun close
to his bed by night, and his dirk by his side during day:
it seems even his
wife is not unused to the rifle.
His goats, a flock of sixty, had
pastured on the farm of Mr. Cameron, of Coirechoillie, for which Mac Phee
had never paid ‘grass mail’; so one day in February, 1842, during his
absence, the whole were driven off. Mrs. Mac Phee, a modern Helen Mac
Gregor, gave quick pursuit, firing several times upon the party, but could
not rescue the spoil; yet the dread of the outlaw’s retaliation on
Cameron’s sheep, induced him at last to pay for the goats.
When Mr. Edward Ellice had purchased
the property of Glenquoich, Ewen paid him a visit, and in the style of
ancient vassalage, or rather independent lairdship, he presented him with
some goat milk cheese, and coolly, but with great politeness, informed the
new proprietor, that he wished him well, and if no disturbance were
ofFered to him, he should never think of molesting Mr. Ellice! The island
is, indeed, not perhaps worth a shilling; but it was well adapted for the
residence of this stern Highlander. Yet he has been lately ejected from
his domain, and lives at Fort William, without much fear of being farther
troubled by civil or military authorities.
The foregoing is graphically
described in Mr. Edward C. Ellice’s book on Place-Names in Glengarry
and Glen quoich, published in 1898.
"Macphee was a well-known character
throughout Inverness-shire about 50 years ago. Enlisting into the army as
a young man, he soon found the restraints of discipline irksome to his
restless nature, and, after a short term of service, deserted, and
returned to his native Glengarry, where he lived in concealment with his
sister at Feddan. The regimental authorities, however, hearing of his
hiding—place, sent a sergeant with a posit of soldiers to arrest
him, and these, coming to Feddan unawares, captured him without much
difficulty, and marched him off to the steamer at Corpach. Just as the
steamer was starting, Ewen suddenly bent down, and, snapping his handcuffs
against an iron bar which lay on the deck, leapt ashore. The steamer was
off; and so was Ewen, and bounding over the heath, he was soon out of
reach, unharmed by the few bullets which the soldiers sent after him. For
two years he wandered about the woods which line the shores of Loch Arkaig,
when, finding that he was no longer pursued, he made up his mind to build
himself a bothy on the island in Loch Quoich, which now bears his name.
His bothy built, he must needs have a wife; so one fine morning he stepped
across the hill to Glen Dulochan, where he had previously made the
acquaintance of a girl, and, without much more courting, popped her on his
back, and returned to his island, where they were duly married.
When Mr. Ellice first came to
Glenquoich he found Macphee in possession of his island. He was looked up
to by all the poor people of the glen as a "seer" ; cows that were ill
were brought to him to be cured, and he was also a noted weaver of charms.
Mr. Ellice’s first interview with Ewen was characteristic of the man. The
former and a friend were sitting one night after dinner at Glenquoich
Lodge, then quite a small house, "a but and a ben," drinking their
whisky-toddy, when in walked Macphee, attired, as usual, in full Highland
dress. Mr. Ellice, in the course of conversation, asked him by what right
he lived on the island; for answer, Ewen drew his dirk and, plunging it
into the table, said: "By this right I have kept it, and by this right I
will hold it."
Macphee lived for many years on the island, and was a
great favourite with Mr. Ellice, in spite of his notoriously wild
character. Many are the anecdotes told in Glenquoich of his escapes from
the sheriff’s officers; but as time went on his 8heep-stealing
propensities grew on him, and at last the neighbouring shepherds, alarmed
at the losses in their flocks, determined to try and bring the thefts home
to him. They had not long to wait; one snowy morning they found the tracks
of a man and some sheep which led down from the hill to the lochside just
opposite his house. The sheriff was informed, and two officers were sent
to his house; these rowed over from Glenquoich to the island. Ewen, of
course, was away on the hill; not so his wife, who without much ado
commenced to fire on the officers as soon as they approached the island;
these, being quite unprepared for this style of reception, found in
discretion the better part of valour, and retired to Inverness. Then, next
week, however, they returned in force and this time well-armed. Ewen
Macphee was caught and taken to prison, where he eventually died ; and on
searching the place, bales upon bales of tallow and skins were found
hidden in the loch under the banks of the island."