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Traditions and Stories of Scottish Castles
Erchless Castle

Erchless Castle

THE district of Beauly possesses a peculiar charm for the Scottish tourist whose experience of the scenery of Scotland has been confined to the Lowlands. The northern portion of the kingdom is so radically different in character from the southern that one might readily imagine that the Grampian Mountains formed the boundary of a new State, or were the natural demarcation coinciding with the artificial dividing line between two zones. The fertile vales of Tweeddale and Clydesdale, with their inconsiderable mounts and hills, give place, first of all to the varied uplands and elevated plains of Perthshire, which are preparatory for the cloud-daring peaks of west Aberdeenshire, and the rugged and barren mountains of Caithness and Sutherland. Betwixt these extremes of verdant slopes and heath-clad hills the district of Beauly lies; and whilst partaking of the nature of each, it forms the connecting link between the two dissimilar aspects of nature.

The varied country is here decidedly mountainous, and the waters which flow down the sides of the hills are so concentrated and diverted into the gloomy glens which lie between that they assume the dignity of rivers. The inland lochs which lie embossed among the hills find their outlet to the sea through the straths formed by the overhanging mountains; and though it is difficult to trace a consecutive range of these, the phenomena which they display are similar to those of the Grampians. The water-shed of the locality is east by north, and many of the rivers join themselves together ere debouching into the North Sea, the inward sweep of whose waters has hollowed out the vast bay of the Moray Firth.

Three inland lochs at different altitudes are driven by the set of the land to seek the same outlet. Loch Affrick, after gathering the drainage of Glen Grivie, flows into Loch Benevian through the romantic Strath Affrick. Issuing from the latter loch, the overflow takes the name of River Glass, and assumes the proportion of a considerable stream. Further north Loch Lingard becomes tributary by pouring its waters through Strath Cannich into the Glass; and beyond Scuir na Lappish, Loch Morar’s stream, rushing through the depths of Strath Farrar, hastens also to join the swiftly-flowing Glass, which becomes known as the Beauly river after receiving this accession. From Struan Inn, the point of confluence of the Glass and Farrar, the traveller may wander in any direction with the assurance of meeting with lovely and picturesque scenery. He may pursue the precarious path which leads westward to the shores of Loch Morar, following the devious course of the Farrar, whose waters roll turbulently downwards to the ocean over rock and fell, forming myriad cascades of silvery brightness which sparkle in the summer sun, or dash impetuously down the strath, o’erladen with the spate of winter snows; or, journeying south-westward, he may retrace the Glass through all its windings until he reaches the point where Cannich joins its stream. The road to the right will carry him to the still and silent shores of Loch Lingard, whose waters lie enclosed by mighty mountains and over-shadowed by lofty trees. But if he pursue the way which stretches before him he will ere long reach the hidden recesses where Loch Benevian and Loch Affrick form natural reservoirs to feed these rapid and overflowing rivers. Despite the volume of water which flows through the channel of the Affrick, the inequalities of the rocky way which it follows break it up into innumerable waterfalls of little altitude, but of great force and energy. And when Mamsoul and Beinattow, the presiding mountains which rule the Cannich and the Affrick, are capped with snow, and the wintry torrents are rushing down their precipitous sides, the picturesque effect which these rivers present is striking and impressive.

The fringe of the great Caledonian Forest, which once stretched from the Firth of Forth to the Banks o’ Dee, here still retains a portion of its primeval grandeur, and gigantic birch trees and towering, pyramidal firs cast their sombre shadows over the restless stream which brawls below.

"From the sources which well
In the tarn or the fell,
From its fountains
In the mountains,
Its rills and its gills,
Through moss and through brake
It runs and it creeps
For a while till it sleeps
In its own little lake.

Here it comes sparkling,
And there it lies darkling,
Now smoking and frothing
Its tumult and wrath in,
Till in this rapid race on which it is bent
It reaches the place of its steep descent."

Amid such scenery thus imperfectly described stands the old Castle of Erchiess, the seat of the head of the old Clan Chisholm. A short distance from Struy Bridge, on the banks of the Beauly formed by the conjoined rivers of Farrar and Glass, and pleasantly situated upon a wooded eminence overlooking the stream, this Castle adds that element of human interest to the scene without which it would be incomplete. The many-gabled structure, with its quaint turrets and hidden turnpike stairs, might well afford to the student of architecture a compendious history of his art. The original Castle, judging from its plan, was erected early in the 14th century, though there have been many alterations on the structure since that time.

The oriel windows, elegant as they may be, formed no portion of the original building; nor can one believe that the chief who laid the foundation stone in remote times ever crossed the threshold of his dwelling beneath a pillared portico. But these adjuncts, since they are so plainly additions and not restorations, add to the piquancy of the general effect. In any case it would be difficult to find another site for a Scottish Castle at once so picturesque and so commanding.

The Chisholms belonged originally to the Border Counties, the earliest noted in history being John de Chisholme, who is named in a Bull of 1254 by Pope Alexander IV. John’s grandson, Sir John de Chisholme of Berwick, fought at Bannockburn in 1314, on the side of Robert the Bruce. About 1403, Alexander de Chisholme, of Chisholme, Roxburghshire, who was the son of Sir Robert, Constable of Urquhart Castle and Sheriff of Inverness, was married to Margaret, who is described as "the Lady of Erchless," and this seems to have been the earliest of the Chisholms of Erchless Castle. The lands in the possession of the family at this date were Strathglass and Ard, and later they came into the estate of Comar, which made them proprietors of a large part of Ross-shire.

In 1685, when the Duke of York became James II. and VII., many of the Highland Clans adhered to his cause, as they were chiefly adherents of the Romish Church, and expected the restoration of the ancient faith. The fatal conflict at the Pass of Killiecrankie, where Viscount Dundee fell in the hour of victory, forced the Northern Clans to retire, pursued by the Scottish Whigs and English Army. John Chisholm garrisoned Erchless Castle to resist the pursuers, but he had at length to surrender it to General Livingstone (afterwards Viscount Teviot) who was Commander-in-chief of the Scottish forces of William of Orange.

With that blind devotion to the Stewart Cause which is one of the problems of Scottish history at the time, Roderick Chisholm, son of John, took part in the Jacobite Rising of 1715, in support of the Chevalier de St. George (James VIII.) after his services had been foolishly refused by George I. The estates of Roderick were forfeited, but he was afterwards pardoned in 1735, and the lands restored to him. This did not prevent him from joining Prince Charles Edward in 1745, and leading eighty of the Chisholms through the campaign till Culloden, where thirty of them were killed and his son of the same name also fell. The lands were not alienated at this time, and have remained with his descendants ever since in undisturbed possession.

Erchless Castle, though thus intimately associated with war, has also a traditional romance of love, the story of which is still current in the locality, though dates are lacking. About six miles from the Castle, on the other side of the Beauly River, stands the Castle of Beaufort, the ancient seat of the Clan Fraser. It so happened at one time that Fraser, the Lord of Lovat, had an only daughter whose welfare was his chief concern. Reared beneath the shelter of Beaufort Castle and encircled by the unremitting care of her father and brethren, she grew up to womanhood. The young Chief of the Chisholms had seen the maid and had fallen captive to her charms; but the two families were then at feud, and though the lady reciprocated his affection no marriage seemed possible. At length Chisholm decided to win his bride at the point of the sword; and one moonlight night, accompanied by a few of his faithful followers, he waylaid her near some well-known trysting-place and bore her away to his own territory. With commendable caution he refrained from carrying her to Erchless Castle, where she would be first sought for, but rather took her to a lonely isle in Loch Bruirach where he deemed her safe from discovery.

Meanwhile the Frasers had found out the loss of their young lady, and the baron rose up in wrath and ordered a speedy pursuit :—

"O fy! gar ride, an’ fy! gar rin,
An’ hasteye, bring these
faitours again,
For she’s be brent an’ he’s be slain."

The artifice of Chisholm in conveying his love to the retreat he had chosen was of no avail. The Frasers had mustered in force and the Chisholms could not withstand them.

"From Beauly’s wild and woodland glen
How proudly Lovat’s banners
How fierce the
plaided Highland clan
Rush onward with the braid claymore."

They soon discovered the spot which the youthful lover had chosen. What will not man endure when love and beauty is his reward? But the odds against The Chisholm were fearful; and when his lady clung to his arm and implored him to resign her again to her kindred rather than risk his life, her very entreaties impeded his swordsmanship. With his left arm supporting her whom he valued as dearer than life, he strove to beat back the weapons of his enemies; and though his defence was a gallant one, of what avail was his prowess against so many? Had he remained on the mainland some fleet horse might have borne him into the wilds of Glen Elchaig or the barren shelter of Mealfourvounie; but the dark waters of the loch encircled him. Bearing up his precious charge he again essayed the combat, even though overborne by his assailants, but the moon was overcast by a flying scud which swept across the sky, and in the temporary darkness which was thus produced the fatal thrust which was aimed at his heart by one of her brethren was received by herself! Sinking breathless, lifeless to the ground, the fair cause of this deadly tumult yielded up her breath, and lay before the speechless and agonized combatants in the chill embrace of Death! Who shall dare intrude with officious description on such a scene as this, or strive with laboured words to explain the depth of such heart-misery? Only the simple language of the ballad which describes a similar situation can express the profound emotions of such an incident:-

"I wish l were where Helen lies!
Night and
day on me she cries,
And I am weary of the skies
For her sake that died for me!"

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