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Glimpses of Church and Social Life in the Highlands in Olden Times and Other Papers
Chapter VIII. The Parish of Laggan - The Old Church of St Kenneth - The Antiquities of the Parish

UNFORTUNATELY no records of this parish exist prior to 1827, the earlier records having, it would appear, been accidentally burnt. From other sources of information, however, I have gathered sundry interesting particulars of the old church of Laggan and the antiquities of the parish. Near the eastern end of Loch Laggan there are still to be seen the venerable ruins of St Kenneth’s Chapel “in the midst of its own consecrated burying-ground, which is still devoutly preferred to any other.” There is a curious tradition connected with the building of this church giving some idea of the ignorance, superstition, and barbarity of the times to which it refers. The church, it is related, was built by Allan nan creach (or Allan of the Spoils), a sobriquet given to one of the family of Lochiel. Allan had been" very active, and for a time rather successful, in levying contributions from his neighbours, and in driving off their cattle without any ceremony, for his own special benefit. But the tide of plunder does not always run smooth any more than that of love. Allan having met with some disasters in his predatory expeditions, was resolved—so runs the story—upon having some communication with the inhabitants of the other world in order to find out the cause. There was a celebrated witch in his neighbourhood called Gorm Shiiil, or Blue-Eyed. She was such an adept in her profession that she could transform herself and others into hares and crows, raise hurricanes from any quarter of the compass she pleased, and perform other wonderful exploits. Under the direction of Gorm Shiiil, Allan, for the purpose of attaining the object he had in view, took a living cat, and with his servant went at night to a corn-kiln near Torcastle in Strathlochy. The cat was put living on a spit, and the servant commenced the process of roasting it before a slow fire, while Allan stood at the entrance leading to the fire with a drawn sword to keep off all intruders. The cat set up the most doleful lamentations, when an army of cats immediately gathered, as it were, to its rescue; but they were kept at a respectful distance by the redoubtable Allan. Every cat as it came exclaimed in Gaelic, “Sole an carabh cait sin”—“That is bad treatment of a cat.” “It will not be better just now,” was Allan’s response, and every moment he would address the man at the fire, saying, “Whatever you may hear or see, keep turning the cat.” At last a big black cat with one eye came and calmly remonstrated with Allan on his cruelty, and told him that his late reverses were a punishment for his wickedness in plundering his neighbours; and that in order to atone for his guilt and obtain forgiveness for his sins, he must build seven churches—a church for every creach that he raised. The cat—Camdubh (the one-eyed cat)—added that if Allan persevered in his present amusement until Camdubh’s brother cat with the long-hanging ears (Cluasa leabhra mo bhrathar) would arrive, he would take such summary vengeance that Allan would never see his Maker’s face in mercy. This threat having the desired effect, Allan released the roasting cat and did not wait the arrival of the dreaded Cluasan leabhra, but immediately retired from the scene, and lost no time in commencing his church-building contract with Camdubh. Ere he died Allan erected—so the legend concludes—the seven churches, and the old church of Laggan was one of the number.

The following story is also related regarding another of Allan nan Creach’s churches in St Mungo’s island, at the entrance of Loch Leven, near Glencoe, in Argyllshire. About the middle of last century a man was buried in the island. For several nights after the dead man disturbed the whole neighbourhood, calling in a most dolorous strain on a certain individual to come and relieve him. The man at last set off for the island in the dead hour of night, and having arrived at the grave, found the dead man with his head and neck fairly above the ground. “What is your business with me?” says the Glencoe man, “and why are you disturbing the neighbourhood with your untimely lamentations after this fashion?” “I have not,” says the dead man, “rest night or day since I lay here, nor shall I as long as this head is on my body. I shall give you the reason. In my younger days I swore most solemnly that I would marry a certain woman, and that I never would forsake her as long as this head remained on my body. At this time I had hold of a button, and the moment we parted I separated the head of the button from the neck, thinking that then all was right. I now find my mistake. You must therefore cut off my head.” The other, fetching a stone, cut off the head close to the surface of the ground ; and then the dead man dragged the rest of the body back to the grave, leaving the head to shift for itself. This story, it is added, was for a long time as firmly believed in by some people in Glencoe as any truth of Holy Writ.

“Laggan,” says Shaw in his ‘History of the Province of Moray,’ was “a mensal church, dedicated to St Kenneth. The Bishop was patron, and settled the parish jure proprio. Now the King is properly patron, and the family of Gordon has no act of possession. This parish was sometimes, by the Bishop, annexed to Alvie, that he might draw the more teinds from it. Mr James Lyle served long in both parishes, and, it is said, understood not the Irish language, such penury was there of ministers having that language. Upon his demitting, the parishes were disjoined, but were again united (by Murdoch Mackenzie, Bishop of Moray) in 1672, and so continued to the death of Mr Thomas Macpherson. It was again disjoined and re-erected in 1708.” The name in full is Laggan-Choinnich, the laggan or “hollow of Kenneth.” The present church is at Laggan Bridge, but the old church was at the nearest end of Loch Laggan, where the ruins are still to be seen. It is mentioned in 1239 as Logynkenny (Register of Moray), and Logykenny shortly before, as Logachnacheny and Logkeny in 1380, Logankenny in 1381 (all from Register of Moray), and Lagane in 1603 (Huntly Rental). The Gaelic word lagan is the diminutive of lag, a hollow.

In the oldest version of the ballad of “ Sir James the Rose,” which appears to be founded on fact, there is a reference to the graveyard of St Kenneth’s Chapel. Sir James being “under hiding” for having killed “a gallant squire,” found his way to the House of Mar, and concealed himself “in the bank abune the mill, in the lowlands of Buleichan.” The place of his concealment having been betrayed by “the nourice,” he was found asleep, and his sword and target were seized before he awoke. On seeing his hopeless condition, he is represented as saying—

“Donald, my man, wait till I fa’,
And ye sail get my brechan ;
Ye’ll get my purse, though fu’ o’ gowd,
To take me to Loch Laggan.”

The “purse o’ gowd” would no doubt be for the purpose of carrying Sir James’s remains to the churchyard of St Kenneth’s; but whether or not his dying request was complied with is not related.

Skene relates that Cainnech, one of St Columba’s monks, who had accompanied him in his first visit to King Brude and founded several monasteries in Scotland, “dwelt at the foot of a mountain in the Drumalban range, referring, no doubt, to the Church of Laggankenny at the east end of Loch Laggan; and two islands are mentioned—Ibdone and Eninis, or the ‘island of birds,’ one or other of which was probably the island now called Inchkenneth, on the west side of Mull.” It is supposed that the farms of Garvamore and Garvabeg in Laggan indicate the locality where in 1187 the forces of King William the Lion defeated the forces of Donald Ban Macwilliam, a descendant of Malcolm Can-more, and a pretender to the Crown of Scotland. “After the defeat,” says Skene, “of the Gallwegian rebels, and the slaughter of Gilcolm and his followers, the earls and barons of the kingdom of Scotland proper appear to have become more reconciled to their legitimate monarch; and he felt the necessity of either slaying or expelling Macwilliam, who had now for six years maintained himself in the northern districts beyond the Spey, and been ravaging and devastating those parts of the kingdom which adhered to King William, if he would not lose his crown altogether; but it was not till the year 1187 that he found himself in a position to advance against him. He then invaded Moravia or Moray at the head of a large army, and while he remained with the main body of the army at Inverness, sent his earls and barons with the Scots and Gallwegians to lay waste the more western parts of the province. They encountered Macwilliam in the upper part of the valley of the Spey, encamped on a moor called Mamgarvia, and a battle took place there on Friday the 31st of July, in which Macwilliam was slain with many of his followers. Two years after the independence of Scotland was restored by Richard the First, King of England, and the relations between the two kingdoms replaced on their former footing.”

In the ‘Survey of the Province of Moray,’ published in 1798, it is said that in the midst of the Coill-morc, the great wood, extending at one time about five miles along the southern side of Loch Laggan, “is a place distinguished by the name of the Ard merigie, ‘the height for rearing the standard.’ It has been held sacred from remote antiquity as the burial-place of seven Caledonian kings who, according to tradition, lived about the period when the Scots, driven northward of the Tay by the Picts, held their seat of government at Dunkeld. It is likewise, by tradition, represented as a distinguished place for hunting; and it abounded in deer and roe till they were lately expelled by the introduction of sheep, with whom they never mingle. The kings, it is said, and their retinue, hunted on the banks of the lake for the greater part of almost every summer, which is rendered probable by its vicinity to the parallel roads of Glenroy, which must have been formed solely for the purpose of betraying the game into an impassable recess, and could not have been executed but by the influence of some of the first consequence and power in the State. In the lake are two neighbouring islands: on the largest the walls remain of a very ancient building, composed of round stone laid in mortar, untouched by the mason’s hammer. Here their majesties rested from the chase secure, and feasted on the game. The other, named Eilan-nan-con, the ‘Island of Dogs,’ was appropriated for the accommodation of the hounds; and the walls of their kennel, of similar workmanship, also remain.”

The parish of Laggan is bounded on the north by Boleskine and Moy, on the north-east and east by Kingussie, on the south-east by Blair-Athole and Fortingall, on the south by Fortingall, and on the south-west and west by Kilmonivaig. Its utmost length is about 22 miles, its utmost width about 18 miles, and its land area about 234 square miles, or fully 150,000 acres. The Spey rises in the parish at an altitude of 1475 feet.

Laggan possesses what Mr D. Wilson considers altogether “the most perfect relic of a British stronghold of the class {i.e., as at the Barmekyne of Echo in Britain.” Dun-da-lamh occupies the summit of a very steep eminence in the angle at the junction of the Fort William and Corryarrick roads, about twelve miles west from Kingussie. The subjoined description is by the late Mr M‘Nab, for many years tenant of the farm of Dalchully:—

“Dun-da-lamh, or the two-handed (so called from its having a small hill on the left side and a spur or ridge on the right, about half its own height), stands about 600 feet above the valley, the river Spey passing on the north side and the Mashie on the south at a short distance from its base; on the south and east sides the rock is nearly perpendicular. It is joined at its western end to the rest of the range by a narrow neck of land about 100 feet lower than the Dun, and about 300 yards long, the rest of the range rising from 200 to 300 feet higher. The dimensions of the top within the wall are—length, 420 feet; breadth at the west end, 250 feet; centre, 110; and east end, 75 feet. The wall appears to have varied considerably in height as well as in thickness, but in most places it is now from 2 to 5 feet high and 14 feet thick. At the west side, however, where it was most exposed, it is 17 feet thick; and in the north-west corner it is 25 feet thick, this being the most easily approached part of the whole hill. The wall at this part is still 13 feet high, and appears to have been 6 or 7 feet higher, judging from the quantity of stones that have fallen. The wall on the south side, where the rock is for about two-thirds of the length quite inaccessible, appears to have been merely built up where there were gaps in the rocks, and could only have been about 6 feet high. At the east end the rock is not quite so steep, and the wall was regularly built, and may have been about 9 or 10 feet high. At the north side the wall appears to have been about the same height until near the west end, when it rose several feet higher. The stones on both faces of the wall vary considerably in size and thickness, but the average of the flags is about 18 inches square and 2 inches thick. Yet none are so large as not to have been easily carried by a man. The stones in the centre of the wall are of all shapes and sizes, from 2 inches to a foot square, and some of them nearly round, as if dug out of the ground. There is no appearance of cement of any kind, or of earth or sand in the wall; but the face of the stones being naturally straight, the wall is beautifully built. There have been two approaches, with entrances to correspond in the wall, about the centre of the hill—one on the north, and one on the south. The one on the north is a straight gully, very steep, and about 10 yards wide, commencing in the valley between it and the little Dun. About half-way up this approach there is a large stone which appears to have had the ground cleared away from it, and being slightly supported with small stones, so that it could have been sent down the passage with very little trouble in case of an attack. The entrance through the wall must have been very narrow, not above 3 or 4 feet. The southern approach commences at the foot of the hill, and ascends by a zigzag partly natural and partly artificial. About half-way up there is a large heap of iron slag or cinder, and a large round hole faced with stone, and filled with ashes and charcoal, which has evidently been used for smelting iron, as the heaps of cinder show evidence of much greater heat than could have been produced by a smith’s forge. The top of the zigzag is so narrow that not above three men could move abreast. There is no appearance of any outworks either about the neck of the hill or on the approaches. No traces of dwellings can be discovered within the walls, although I have tried with a number of trenches in all parts, as there are many small rocks within the enclosure. Probably the dwellings were built up against them of sods and wood, and consequently left no trace. Nearly all over the enclosure there is a layer of vegetable mould from 6 inches to a foot thick, then a mixture of ashes with charcoal and small pieces of bone calcined, and stones showing strong traces of fire, the layer being about 4 inches thick, and below this the natural soil, a red clayey sand, which has no appearance of ever having been disturbed. A few yards to the west of the northern entrance there is a well or tank, which appears to have been about 3 feet deep and about 6 feet wide. It has not been built over in any way. There does not appear to be a spring in it, but being the lowest part of the ground, the surface-drainage no doubt supplied a considerable quantity of water, as, although now nearly filled up, it rarely dries except in very hot weather. Part of the well has been dug out, but nothing was found except a quantity of birch sticks, which must have been put in at a comparatively recent date. In the northwest corner, close to the wall, there is an enormous stone about 12 feet high and 14 feet square. Below this there appeared a sort of hollow, and on clearing away some loose stones and earth I found a cave to extend all under the stone. On crawling into it I found it to be about 12 feet long, 10 feet wide, and 2 feet high; but from the looseness of the sand and small stones at the bottom it is evident the cave must have been much deeper, part of the stones of the wall having fallen into it. Most probably it was used as a dwelling, as the ground is quite dry underneath it. At the south side of the same stone there is a large heap of ashes and charcoal mixed with burnt stones, about 3 feet high and 15 feet round. I cannot glean any satisfactory traditionary account respecting this wonderful fortification, although all the common people will have it that it was built and occupied by what they call the Fingalians, of whose strength and hunting propensities they have very marvellous stories. The Dun is within a short distance of Dalchully House, and there is a very neat Catholic chapel at the base of the mountain, forming a prominent object as one enters the valley of the Spey from Kingussie; and the view from the top of the Dun itself is very extensive, Kinrara monument being quite visible in a clear day, and the great Benmacdui is to be seen peering over the tops of all the other hills.”

The old military road from the Bridge of Laggan by Corryarrick to Fort Augustus was formed by General Wade about the year 1735. “This the most truly alpine road in the British dominions has been left to decay, and large portions of it have been swept away by torrents, so that the zigzag lines by which the military engineer endeavoured to render the steep side of an abrupt mountain accessible to artillery have been tumbled into heaps of rubbish like natural scaurs.”

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