The following is an excerpt from
BUT FOR FREEDOM, Across the Sea beyond Skye by Elizabeth Rodger. The
book is available on Amazon Kindle eBooks.
Copyright © 2011 by Elizabeth Rodger
It was a cold wintry spring morning. Sleet
and freezing rain blew across the barren moor as the two armies
confronted each other, commanded by young men each in his twenties, and
each with a deep personal interest in the outcome.
The battle lasted barely an hour and was a
rout of the Highland force. Determined to eradicate any future threats
to the House of Hanover and their hold on the British Throne, the Duke
of Cumberland gave the order to kill the wounded Highlanders lying on
Through the mass of mangled bloodied bodies,
an injured Highlander dragged his badly wounded father from the scene.
The sight of the Redcoats spreading across the battlefield on their
murderous task drove him to greater effort.
“Safe yersel’, Will!” begged the badly
wounded man. “I’m done fer onyway.”
“I canna leave ye, Faither,” protested the
younger man, using every ounce of his depleted strength to move the
elder man from the battlefield.
“Listen tae me, Lad. Yer Mither canna lose
the twa o’ us. Tell her she was in my heart tae the end. Run, Will! Run
fer yer wife an’ bairns.”
The two men clasped hands, the younger
looking into the loving eyes of his father for the last time. He nodded
acceptance of the situation, “I’ll see tae Mither.”
“I ken you will, Lad. Run noo, Will!” The
elder man propped himself on his elbow and watched as his son hobbled
toward a stand of birch trees and disappeared.
The Redcoats approached, crisscrossing the
battlefield, bayoneting or shooting the fallen showing any sign of life.
The screams of the wounded meeting their end sounded closer. Satisfied
that his son had made his escape, the man slumped down to await his
The mountains rose steeply, towering like
great guardians. Their immense forms enclosed the glen, giving a
deceptive feeling of closeness. Somewhere on the slopes, too distant to
be spotted, the far-off bleat of a sheep told the true span of the
There was a chill in the morning air
heralding the approaching winter. He cast his eyes upward from his
labor, his glance running along the crest of the mountain ridge, starkly
dark against the grayness of the clouds. High on the ridge, mere specks
in the distance, a herd of deer grazed, slowly moving along as they
fattened up to endure the long hard winter. Soon, snow falling in the
higher levels would force the herd into the glen, making the hunt much
easier. Careful harvesting of venison was practiced, the supply
essential as a supplement to the diet of the people in the region.
His eyes traveled slowly down the slopes,
stopping to absorb the detail of a jagged rock-face, to dwell on the
greenness of the many patches of moss, to where the purple hues of the
heather had faded into the russets of autumn. His gaze continued down a
gully eroded by a stream cascading to the floor of the glen where it
disappeared in a stand of pines. The shrill cry of an osprey, hoping to
frighten some prey into action, its eyes peeled for movement,
interrupted his daydreaming and summoned him back to his task.
The oats had been harvested, threshed, and
he had alternated with his mother to grind the grain with the quern.
There had been a reasonable yield from the small plot hewn from the
floor of the boggy, rock-littered glen. Now it was time to harvest the
small potato crop before the first hard frost. He dug below each plant
with deliberate care, retrieving every tuber for the precious resource
it would be during the lean winter months.
The lad was handsome, endowed with a thick
mop of dark hair, gray eyes, and the lean build of an athlete.
Traversing the surrounding rugged terrain had developed a sure-footed
agility and strength that showed in the confident grace of his carriage.
He was keenly aware of his surroundings with an instinct for survival in
the harsh environment. At twelve years of age, the eldest child, he had
assumed many adult responsibilities. And yet, despite the hardship of
his existence, he had a pleasant disposition, always quick with a smile.
His young face showed the ease and contentment of belonging to a close
and affectionate family.
“Robbie! Robbie!” His mother, Morag
MacKenzie was standing in the doorway of the cottage summoning him with
Nearby, his father, Donald MacKenzie, was
busy clearing rocks and boulders to create a larger crop patch for
spring seeding with a greater yield of oats needed to sustain a growing
family. It was a laborious job, prying the surface rocks loose and
dragging or rolling them clear of the area to extend and reinforce the
rock wall guarding the crop. Some of the boulders had to remain, too
heavy even for Donald’s considerable strength. Leaving them was of
little consequence since the small patch was dotted with many boulders,
making the use of a pony dragging a plough impossible. The plot had to
be tilled manually.
Roy, the family collie, lay nearby. Always
facing in the direction of the small flock of sheep, he kept a constant
watchful eye for their safety.
Robbie picked up the spade and sack of
potatoes, and strode toward the small structure. It was a typical
highland croft of the time, a ‘butt and ben’, with walls built of loose
stone, and a roof of timber and sod covered with straw. The forward
area, the ‘butt’, housed his parents, two sisters, young brother, and
himself. An addition to the back of the structure, called the ‘ben’,
provided shelter for the pony and one milking cow from the winter
The inside of the ‘butt’ was partitioned
with a larger living section, and small sleeping areas. Furniture stood
on the bare earth. The focal point of the living section was an open
hearth where peat burned, giving a distinct smell to the interior.
Cooking utensils carved from horn hung neatly by the hearth. A metal
rod, stretched across the fireplace, supported a covered pot used for
general cooking and baking. The family would gather around a small table
positioned in front of the hearth to eat an evening meal, relishing any
heat cast off by the peat fire on a winter’s evening.
Donald had added a tiny window to the humble
little home. It was a luxury greatly enjoyed by his wife. On a pleasant
day, afternoon sunlight shone on Morag sitting by the window working her
spinning wheel. She spent many hours spinning the wool not only
harvested from their small flock but from others in the area. Her skill
as a craftswoman was renowned. She retained a portion of the spun skein
from each harvest as payment. This enabled her to produce more knitted
goods. Much of her knitting, sweaters, blankets, and socks, she bartered
for other goods at the small general store in the village. On many
winter evenings, she sat by the hearth knitting as the children
congregated around Donald at the small table, to learn ‘their letters’,
or be regaled by one of his many tales.
As Robbie neared the croft, he smiled as the
glen rang with the shouts and laughter of his younger siblings. They
were enjoying a game supervised by Tibbie, the elder sister. Having now
reached an age of responsibility, her contribution in support of the
family was as main caretaker for the younger children, Meg and Kenneth.
Eventually, Tibbie would assume many domestic chores when Morag passed
on her skills as part of her daughter’s education.
“Tak this bag o’ meal tae the MacRaes. They
hivnae harvested yet an’ I think their supply is low,” said Morag.
Robbie slung the bag over his shoulder and
set off at a trot. He decided not to take the track winding through the
glen. Instead, he chose a shortcut over a crag descending from the ridge
like a great buttress. The cool wind in his face, the give of the
heather and moss under his feet was a release after the tedious chore of
harvesting the potatoes. He ran with unrestrained joy. His mother
watched with a smile of pride creasing her face as he ascended the
slope, traversing the undulating terrain with the grace and sureness of
The Macrae croft came in sight on the far
side of the slope’s crest. Robbie’s reaction was instinctive, diving
flat at the sight of the red coats. He wriggled forward on his belly for
the best possible view between clumps of heather. A troop of Redcoats
was standing in formation in front of the croft. Colin MacRae was having
an exchange with an officer, and seemed very agitated by his wild
gesturing. Robbie watched as the officer motioned two soldiers forward.
One lit a torch. Colin stepped in front of the soldiers, his agitated
gesturing changing to wild pleading. At a nod from the officer, the
other soldier drove the butt of his musket into the Colin’s chest with
full force. As he crumpled under the blow, the soldier pummeled him to
the ground with brutal blows to his head and shoulders, and continued
the beating with kicks to Colin’s torso as he lay motionless.
Robbie watched, horrified, as the soldier
prodded the torch into the straw setting the roof on fire in several
places. As the flames took hold in the damp stalks, thin wisps of smoke
turned into billowing black clouds. The door of the croft opened and
Sheila, Colin’s wife, stumbled out coughing violently. She held an
infant in each arm, and an older child clung to her skirt. As the
soldier stepped forward to deliver a beating to the terrified woman, the
officer waved him away with the wailing of the children perhaps stirring
some small mercy in his heart. He signaled to the fearful woman to
leave. She quickly shuffled away with her load, dragging the older child
who repeatedly stumbled in his desperation to maintain his mother’s
Sheila and her children disappeared into a
thicket of small trees near the croft. As Robbie watched the soldier
with the torch move toward the small crop of oats, movement in the sky
farther along the glen caught his attention. Smoke billowed from the
locations of several crofts, hanging in the glen like great black
Robbie remembered overhearing one of his
parents’ nightly conversations. They always shared the news of the day
before retiring. With hushed apprehensive tones, they had discussed the
reports sweeping through the glens of the happenings at Culloden and the
terrible deeds committed after the battle. He had lain in his cot,
transfixed, his breathing suppressed, straining to hear every word as
his parents recounted stories of Redcoats scouring the countryside for
months looking for those who had escaped, and of those captured shipped
to the colonies as slaves or executed. He had listened with growing
anxiety of women and children left unprotected, burned out of their
homes, some never to be seen again, their livestock butchered or driven
away as plunder. The words of his father accepting the veracity of the
rumors were imprinted in his mind, “Aye, they want rid o’ them wha aided
His parents’ worries that the evictions
would reach their remote glen had been realized. The intent of the
Redcoats was very clear to Robbie. They had come to evict the crofters,
burn their homes and their crops, thereby denying them reason to ever
return. And the next croft in line for elimination was his home.
Robbie didn’t stay to see the patch of oats
being torched. He had to return with all speed to warn his parents.
Casting aside the bag of meal, he fled. He called on every fiber of his
strength, agility, and sureness of foot as he retraced his route,
bounding through the gorse and heather, leaping over gullies and rocks.
As he cleared the crest of the crag, he saw his father still at work in
the grain plot. Between labored gasps, he shouted as he ran, “Redcoats!
Redcoats are coming.” Desperately he tried to attract his father’s
attention to give him the earliest possible warning. There was little
hope of Donald hearing his son’s cries above his grunting and panting as
he cleared the rocks. It was only the good fortune of his mother leaving
the croft with a hot brew for her husband that allowed her to hear his
shouts. She turned in the direction of the faint cries to see her son
racing full tilt down the slope.
“Faither, there’s somethin’ the matter wi’
Robbie,” she called to her husband, pointing in the direction of her
“Whit’s he shoutin’? Cin ye mak it oot?” he
“God save us, Faither. He’s tellin’ us the
Redcoats are comin’,” she replied.
Donald ran to meet Robbie. “Tak deep
breaths, Laddie. Steady noo! Tell me whit’s the matter,” he said
supporting his winded son. Between deep gasps, Robbie recounted the
atrocities committed at the MacRae croft, and the torching of the glen.
“A’richt, Laddie. Fetch the pony an’ coo.
Hurry noo.” Donald returned to the croft where Morag waited to hear the
“They’re comin’ tae burn us oot, Mither. Get
the bairns ready tae travel.” Then he turned cupping his hand to his
ear, straining to hear a faint noise in the distance. It came as a faint
and steady tap, tap, tap. He recognized the sound of the drummer boy
tapping out the marching beat. The sound was becoming more distinct as
the Redcoats moved in their direction.
“Be quick aboot it, Mither,” he added
quietly. He pulled the small cart in front of the cottage. Barrels of
meal, potatoes, blankets, warm clothing, some cooking utensils, tools,
and the basic necessities were quickly loaded into the cart.
Robbie harnessed the pony to the cart and
tied the milking cow to the back of the frame.
The steady tap, tap, tap of the drummer’s
beat grew ever closer.
“The bairn cin gang in the cart, but the
rest o’ ye must walk. It’s a big load tae ask the wee beast tae pull,”
“Jist twa mair things, Faither,” said Morag.
“We canna forget the guid book or my knittin’.” She rushed into the
croft to reappear with a blanket filled with skeins, and the family
bible clutched to her chest. “We micht need the guid words tae see us
throu hard times.”
Donald put his arm around the shoulders of
his son, giving a quick squeeze to show his confidence. “Robbie, see yer
Mither safely tae the crossroads. Then run tae warn the villagers. I
must gang tae the Macrae croft an’ gie whit help I cin. We’ll meet at
the kirk.” Then, giving his wife a quick embrace, he added, “Hurry,
lass. They’ll be roon’ the bend in a minute.”
The Redcoats were now close enough to hear
the footsteps of the soldiers in unison with the steady tap, tap, tap,
of the drummer’s beat.
With a look of determination etched on her
face, belying the terror gripping her, Morag took hold of the pony’s
halter and led her children along the track. As the little group reached
a bend, Robbie glanced back. His father was scrambling up the slope of
the crag with the faithful Roy at his heels, beyond the sight of the
approaching Redcoats. Reassured his father would be safe, he quickly
followed his mother.
The tap, tap, tap, of the drummer boy
stopped. The Redcoats had reached the croft. Robbie knew it would not be
long before they finished their dirty work and continued along the track
behind them. He turned his attention to the pony, courageously pulling
the heavy load. He fell in behind the cart, and bending down to get a
grip on the frame he pushed with all his might. Tibbie, sensing Robbie’s
great anxiety to make haste, joined him in his efforts. Together, they
eased the load on the little horse sufficiently for it to pick up speed.
At the bottom of a long incline, Morag
wisely called a rest time. Robbie and Tibbie were grateful for the
respite to gather their strength for the assault on the slope. The stop
gave Morag a moment to comfort the little one, Kenneth, whose grip on
the side of the cart was so tight his knuckles showed white through the
baby pudginess of his little fingers. His bottom lip trembled and he had
a wide-eyed look, sensing but not understanding the nervous fear around
him. Morag picked up the little fellow and held him close.
Morag and Robbie turned together toward the
sound. The distant tap, tap, tap on the drum announced the resumption of
the Redcoats’ march along the glen. Their eyes met in mutual
understanding. It was time to move on with all speed. The slope was the
only obstacle before reaching the junction of the tracks. The left fork
to the kirk would take Morag safely away from the Redcoats’ assumed
route along the right fork to the village.
“Meg, cam an’ lead the pony. Ye cin dae it,”
said Morag in a reassuring tone at the hesitant look in the eyes of her
younger daughter. “Jist keep the wee beast in the center o’ the track.
It’s well-trained tae dae the rest.” The little girl stepped forward to
take hold of the rope as she bravely accepted the responsibility forced
on her young years by their plight.
Morag hitched up her long skirt, tucking it
into the belt of her apron, and joined Robbie and Tibbie behind the
cart. Meg, with an excellent imitation of her mother’s clicking sound,
got the little horse moving and with a united effort they started up the
incline. The sound of the approaching drumbeats, getting ever closer,
and the fear of being apprehended gave them the adrenaline of flight.
They heaved and exerted themselves, covering sufficient ground to reach
the crest of the incline before the troop came in sight. A well-earned
rest was called, their expended bodies screaming for recovery.
The sound of the drumbeats, magnifying as
the troop came in sight, quickly raised them from their slumped
positions. The drummer-boy led the way followed by the officer on a
horse. Robbie followed Morag’s gaze beyond the troop to the black smoke
belching from the vicinity of their croft. From the crest of the slope,
they would normally see the length of the glen but smoke billowing from
the line of smoldering crofts hovered like a great dark blanket
obliterating any view. Against this darkness, the bright red coats of
the soldiers moving toward them seemed to stand out so very red, so very
Robbie turned searching his mother’s face
for the anguish she must feel. He saw only a proud tilt of her head, a
look of quiet resolve as she turned away from what had been a happy
life. He took comfort from her strength and her unwillingness to
distress her children with the fear, the awful uncertainty of the future
that must be churning within her.
“Run aheid, Robbie,” said Morag. “The
villagers need tae be warned.” As Robbie opened his mouth to present an
argument she added, “I ken ye promised yer Faither tae seeme tae the
junction o’ the tracks. We’ll be safe. The wee horse’ll manage the load
jist fine frae here. Noo gang, son.”
Robbie nodded agreement and set off along
the track at a measured speed to cover the couple of miles to the
village. If he maintained a good pace he could give the villagers
reasonable warning. The junction was a short distance from where he
turned off loping toward the first croft sitting on a rise above the
village. The place belonged to a Dugald Macrae, cousin of Colin. Dugald
and two of his sons fought at Culloden and were missing since. Rumors
had Dugald and a son killed at the battle, with the other son hiding in
As he approached the small building, Robbie
thought it strange the big deerhound was not there to greet him. It
never failed as a watchdog, announcing any arrival. Robbie opened the
door of the croft and called, “Onybody there?” As there was no response,
he considered the house to be empty. Before continuing with all speed
toward the village, he glanced to the junction, relieved to see his
mother turning on the track to the kirk with the Redcoats nowhere in
The Mathieson family was busy harvesting
their crop of oats. The lilting voices of the women singing, the swish
of the sickles in time to the melody carried to Robbie as he sped toward
them. Some youngsters, ensconced on a blanket in view of the women, were
crawling around another child blissfully napping. Older children were
stacking the bales tied together by the men-folk. Their youthful spirits
would give way to an occasional chase around the stacked bales until
chastised back to their labor. The happiness amongst the group made
light of the work. Little did they suspect, the young figure dashing
along the track brought a message of imminent horror.
“The redcoats are comin’ tae burn ye oot!
They’ve torched the glen,” Robbie yelled as he approached the field. The
singing trickled to a halt. A paralysis took hold as all in the field
stood motionless, stunned, digesting the meaning of Robbie’s words. A
terrible wail from one of the women broke the shocked silence. A frenzy
of movement followed as sickles were thrown aside, as children were
gathered up, as they fled to their homes.
Robbie continued on through the village,
hammering on doors, shouting at the top of his lungs. Villagers appeared
at their doors, some gathered together, questioning each other, curious
to know what was causing the commotion. What was the lad yelling about?
Redcoats hadn’t been seen around the area! Was this a youthful prank?
The shrill scream of a village woman interrupted their chatter. All eyes
followed her gesture to the smoke streaming from the roof of the MacRae
house above the village and the troop of Redcoats clearly outlined on
the hill confirmed the awful reality of the lad’s warning. Chaos erupted
immediately at the impending presence of the Redcoats in the village.
Villagers ran in and out of homes hauling furniture clear of the
structures. Blankets were spread on the ground to accommodate the young
and infirm. They scuttled back and forward adding to mounds of their
most valuable possessions, littering the ground in front of their homes.
There was panic everywhere.
The kirk was strategically situated near the
junction to serve parishioners living in the adjacent glens. It was
built of local stone bound together with mortar, a rarity for any
building in the district. There was a fine arched roof of lumber covered
with slate that had been hauled from a shipment delivered on the coast.
Buttresses, at the end of the walls, supplied needed support for the
weight of the roof. Tall stained glass windows between the buttresses
were the pride of the parishioners.
Morag led the pony into the graveyard
surrounding the kirk. She rang the bell hanging by the door as a signal
to the priest someone was in need. He didn’t appear from his little home
nearby, and Morag guessed he was doing his daily rounds, visiting the
sick, giving support and solace wherever it was needed. There was little
she could do but wait for her husband and son to join her. Hoping to
occupy her daughters, she suggested they search for grass to feed the
pony and cow. Luscious tufts grew around the gravestones, and the girls
made a great game of seeing who could return with the biggest handfuls.
Kenneth toddled after then, proud of the few blades grasped tightly in
his little fists.
Getting a bucket from the cart, Morag
squatted beside the cow and pulling on its teats drew some milk for the
little fellow. A drink of warm milk might induce him to take a nap. The
rhythmic swish, swish of the milk accumulating in the bucket had a
soothing influence, controlling her anxiety about the safety of her son
Robbie had run the length of the village
shouting his warning. As he turned to retrace to the junction and on to
the kirk, he realized the Redcoats were entering the village barring his
path. Taking to the slopes above the village on one side would be
foolhardy since several soldiers had broken from the troop, giving chase
after several young Highlanders, no doubt participants in the Battle of
Culloden. Shots rang out as the Redcoats fired on the fleeing figures.
With no other choice, Robbie scrambled up the slope toward a cliff
denying retreat on the other side and hid behind some boulders. He
watched as groups of soldiers moved through the village prodding torches
into the thatched roofs. Any villagers caught in their path were
brutally clubbed, even those trying to help the infirm from the
buildings. Several dogs rushed at the Redcoats trying to protect master
and property. Their barking quickly changed to yelps of pain as they
were promptly shot or clubbed. One by one the roofs were torched and a
dense cloud engulfed the village. Nearby, cattle frightened by the smoke
bolted and trampled some fleeing villagers to the ground. The roaring of
cattle, the frightened yelling of men, the screaming of women and
children, all made for the most frightful clamor. Robbie lay rooted
behind the boulders, his young eyes witness to a gruesome spectacle of
brutality and destruction, made even worse by the ferocity of the
At the kirk, Morag was still engrossed in
the chore of collecting some milk from the cow. The girls continued the
game of collecting grass until Meg shouted, “Look, Mither! Look at the
smoke.” Morag grabbed the bucket from under the cow and quickly elevated
from her squat. The sky was black. The plumes of smoke writhed in great
clouds obliterating everything as they swept over the moorland toward
the kirk. A brief break in the denseness revealed the shadowy figures of
humans and animals in a frenzy of flight.
The first waft of the acrid smoke arrived,
swirling around and over the kirk. The pony, with nostrils quivering,
eyes rolling backward, sensed the awful fire and made to bolt. The cow
pawed the ground and bayed in high-pitched squeals. Morag shouted to the
children to stay clear. She grabbed the halter of the little horse to
prevent its rearing and comforted it with some strokes on the muzzle.
She prayed Robbie had done a good job of tying the cow to the frame as
the alarmed animal slued from side to side trying to break free. Pulling
hard on the halter rope, she coaxed the terrified recalcitrant pony
forward, and led her little group to the other side of the building. She
tied the halter rope around a nearby gravestone, and followed suit with
the protesting cow to prevent their bolting. With her three children
sheltered against the wall of the kirk under a blanket, she watched as
the smoke swirled past her obliterating the glen beyond. The awful dark
grayness engulfed her, reeking havoc with her nostrils, throat, and
eyes. Her world was on fire, the safety of her husband and son clutched
her with deep fear reinforced by the frightful screams of the
terror–driven villagers as they fled in all directions across the moor,
some with little reason for the path of their flight.